NEW YORK, Nov. 21 - The US Department of Energy has given $3 million to one of Craig Venter's new research labs to build an organism from scratch that can survive with the bare minimum number of genes.
The new research, which comes four months after Venter denounced as "irresponsible" the work of scientists in New York who created a Polio virus from the genes up, is in its early stages. But as 10 scientists begin work on the three-year project at a makeshift lab in Maryland, Venter has already suggested the research may lead to new energy sources if the synthetic organism can be instructed to, say, "deal with carbon sequestration."
To be sure, the project to "synthesize" an organism, in this case the single-celled Mycoplasma genitalium, is not a new one for Venter. In 1995, he began a similar project while running TIGR. At that time, he published a list of the genes he thought would be enough for the bacterium to stay alive. That research, cut short with the birth of Celera, showed that under certain lab conditions the bug, which causes urethritis in humans, could survive with a little more than half of its genome intact.
The new research has also paired Venter with Ham Smith, the Nobel laureate and former Celera senior scientist, who was named scientific director of IBEA today. Smith will oversee the 10 researchers assigned to the M. genitalium project, which will grow to include approximately 25 staffers, according to IBEA. The group is currently working in temporary laboratories in the Maryland Technology Center but will eventually move into new lab space under construction on the TIGR campus.
"With fossil fuel consumption continuing to rise and with it serious environmental damage to our planet, it is imperative that we explore alternative ideas to abate this situation," Venter said in a statement. "IBEA was founded with the goal of exploring biological mechanisms for dealing with carbon sequestration and to study the creation of other potential energy sources such as hydrogen. We believe that building a synthetic chromosome is an important step toward realizing these goals because we could potentially engineer an organism with the ideal qualities to begin to cope with our energy issues."