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Scientists create synthetic life
Scientists in the United States have announced they have developed the world's first synthetic living cell.

Led by Dr Craig Venter, the Maryland-based research team says it is the first time synthetic DNA has been in complete control of a cell.

Venter says the first self-replicating synthetic bacterial cell could unlock countless possibilities to produce new fuels or vaccines.

"Wouldn't it be nice to have something that actually blocked common colds or more importantly HIV, where the virus evolves so quickly the vaccines that are made today can't keep up with those evolutionary changes," he says.

The creation of the synthetic cell began on a computer. Venter says his team assembled it and transplanted it into a recipient cell and converted that to a new species.

"We built the DNA chromosome from scratch from four bottles of chemicals, chromosomes over 1 million letters long. We did the final assembly in yeast that people are familiar with [from] making beer and bread," he says.

Venter says the new bacteria replicated over 1 billion times and researchers say the cells cannot survive independently.
Multiple uses

Maryland biophysicist Dr David Thirumalai says it could be used to create synthetic cells to heal particular parts of the body or to create synthetics bugs to clean up an oil spill.

"Let's use it in an oil spill for example. You could create synthetic bugs that will just consume this oil at a rapid rate."

Venter's institute is already talking to pharmaceutical companies about designing new vaccines, but ethicists and critics of genetic engineering warn the risks are unparalleled.

The researchers acknowledge the technology could be used by bioterrorists to make dangerous new pathogens.
In awe

Thirumalai says it is impossible to predict all the consequences, but he is also in awe of what the Venter team has achieved.

"It is a marriage of minds, imagination and God's creation of life itself," he says.

Venter says this was only a proof-of-concept cell; the next stage is to create synthetic algae.

And he is not shying away from the philosophical debates this also unlocks.

His research team inserted watermarks in the synthetic DNA to be decoded, including a James Joyce quotation: "To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life."

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