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Venter Aims to Create Life

Not one to be shy about his goals, DNA sequencer J. Craig Venter Jr. announced today that he has won a government grant to create life. The U.S. Department of Energy, according to Venter, has awarded him $3 million over 3 years to "develop a synthetic chromosome," the first step toward a self-replicating organism with a totally artificial genome.

No one has ever attempted this, but several years ago Venter began studying how DNA might be trimmed down to create a "minimal genome"--one with only a few hundred genes. He published a paper on how Mycoplasma genitalium might be stripped down in this way and still survive (Science, 10 December 1999, p. 2165). Venter and his colleagues now want to test the concept at the Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives (IBEA) in Rockville, Maryland, founded by Venter earlier this year (Science, 3 May, p. 824). Venter announced that he has recruited molecular biologist Hamilton Smith, a 1978 Nobel laureate, to head up IBEA's 25-person scientific team.

The experiment's purpose, Venter says, is to develop an efficient organism that can be programmed to carry out specific tasks--such as sequestering unwanted carbon in the environment or producing hydrogen for fuel--but would self-destruct if it ever escaped from its specialized environment.

The project raises ethical challenges, as Venter acknowledges. Several years ago, he commissioned a review panel headed by ethicist Mildred Cho of Stanford University to review the risks of creating new life forms. The panel found no show-stopping moral issues but recommended strongly that public authorities review the risks of environmental contamination and the potential for the technology to be used in biological weapons. "We ought to be talking about these risks now and developing the means to control the technology" if it becomes viable, says one member of that panel, bioethicist David Magnus of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

And what are the chances that Venter's team might actually invent a new form of life? "Never bet against him," Magnus advises.

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Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives