- The Washington Times - Friday, November 22, 2002


Scientists, by modifying a simple microbe, hope to create a new form of single-cell life that could lead to new and cleaner energy and perhaps play a role in biological warfare.

But there are safety and ethical concerns in this new world of biology, experts say.

A group led by J. Craig Venter, director of a private program that mapped the human genome, has received a $3 million Department of Energy grant to make a new type of bacteria using DNA manufactured in the lab from basic chemicals.

The goal, Mr. Venter said, is to build a bacterium that is capable of making hydrogen that could be used for fuel, or to develop a microbe that could absorb and store carbon dioxide, thus removing a surplus of that greenhouse gas from the atmosphere.

Along the way, Mr. Venter said, scientists will learn on a molecular level the minimum genes a cell needs to thrive and reproduce and how to artificially make those and other genes.

"This is true basic science," he said. "Even though we've found all those genes in the human genome, we can't understand the most basic simple cell yet. That is what is driving this."

Some experts worry that by learning how to artificially create the basic genes essential to life, even in a fragile, obscure microbe, scientists may open a door to biological hazards and, perhaps, put a new weapon into the hands of terrorists.

"We have to be very careful about controlling the purposes of this research," said Kathy Kinlaw, an executive in the Center for Ethics at Emory University. She said science will ultimately achieve what Mr. Venter is attempting, but that there must be careful oversight to prevent the technology from being misused.

The Department of Energy grant was given to the Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives, a company founded by Mr. Venter. The organization has 10 scientists, including Nobel laureate Hamilton O. Smith, an expert on genetic science who is famed for his skill in handling DNA in the laboratory. The institute will grow to a scientific staff of about 25.

Mr. Venter said the plan is to extend work that he and others started in 1995 at the Institute for Genomic Research. Researchers there sequenced the genes of a bacterium called Mycoplasma genitalium, one of the simplest microbes known with one chromosome and 517 genes. By contrast, humans have about 30,000 genes and 23 pairs of chromosomes in each cell.

Once the normal gene complement of M. genitalium was identified, the researchers began systematically removing genes to determine how many were essential for life. In 1999, they published a paper that narrowed the minimum needs of M. genitalium to 265 to 350 genes.

Mr. Venter said that under the new grant the researchers will use basic chemicals to synthesize the DNA in M. genitalium's single chromosome. They then will use radiation to kill the chromosome in a normal bacterium and replace it with the lab-made DNA.

Mr. Venter said the cell will retain some of its functioning parts, such as enzymes and RNA, but that all of its genetic structure will be synthetic.

"The description of this being a modification rather than making new life is probably correct," he said. "There is a philosophical question of how many genes can you change in an organism" before it becomes a new life form.

Mr. Venter was the head of Celera Genomics, a Rockville company that sequenced the human genome at the same time as an international, government-supported project. The two groups published their findings in separate journals and were jointly honored in a 2000 White House ceremony.

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