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With New Venture, Venter Aims to Synthesize Genome

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Nearly four years after being shown the door at Celera Genomics and creating a family of nonprofits, Craig Venter has founded a new company that aims to create an organism from synthetically crafted and oriented genes.

The company, Synthetic Genomics, is in the process of building a “minimal genome” that can be inserted into the shell of a bacterium, in this case the 517-gene Mycoplasma genitalium, which scientists may eventually genetically engineer to perform specific industrial tasks.

Though the company is still developing the technology, and its applications are speculative, Venter suggests one potential use is in the production of alternate energy sources.

Synthetic Genomics builds on the success Venter and colleagues had two years ago after they synthesized a genome to create the bacteriophage phiX174. Though other researchers managed to build an organism from the genome up before him — in 2002, a team from the State University of New York at Stony Brook used off-the-shelf oligos to create poliovirus — Venter founded the new company to create the first man-made bacterium.

Synthetic Genomics, based in Rockville, Md., is sponsoring and working with researchers from Venter’s nonprofit, the J. Craig Venter Institute, to remove genes from M. genitalium “to identify the minimum set of genes necessary for an organism to survive in a controlled environment,” according to the company’s website.

Once that has been accomplished, Synthetic Genomics will attempt to synthesize the genome, “add the desired biological capabilities,” and insert it into an environment “that allows metabolic activity and replication — the creation of a synthetic cell,” the company says.

Leadership of the company includes Ham Smith, executive vice president and co-chief scientific officer; Clyde Hutchison, president of the company’s scientific advisory board; and Juan Enriquez, who is president.

— Kirell Lakhman

A research team led by TIGR sequenced and analyzed the genome of Colwellia psychrerythraea, a bacterium that thrives in the Arctic Ocean at temperatures below 5° Celsius. The organism’s genome consists of about 5.4 million base pairs. Another team, also led by TIGR, sequenced the genome of root- and seed-dwelling bacterium Pseudomonas fluorescens Pf-5, which contains approximately 7.1 million base pairs.

 

Collaborative research performed at four institutes included the sequencing and analysis of three parasites: Trypanosoma brucei, which causes African trypaonosomiasis, or sleeping sickness; Trypanosoma cruzi, the cause of Chagas disease; and Leishmania major, which causes leishmaniasis and kala azar, a skin disease and an internal disease, respectively. Researchers found that these diseases seem to be caused by a core of similar genes. Participating institutions were the Karolinska Institutet, TIGR, the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, and the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute.

 

NABsys ironed out an exclusive license from Brown University for a nanopore technology that it plans to commercialize for DNA sequencing. Brown will get a “significant equity interest” for the deal.

 

Scientists at the Max-Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have just begun a project to reconstruct the Neanderthal genome using DNA retrieved from fossils of the prehistoric people.

 

Patent Watch

US Patent 6,921,640. Process for labeling a ribonucleic acid. Inventor: Ali Laayoun. Assignee: Bio Merieux. Issued: July 26, 2005.

This invention covers a procedure for “labeling a synthetic or natural ribonucleic acid” as well as labeling RNA fragments which may then be used for medical diagnosis, among other things.

 

US Patent 6,917,883. Efficient cis-element discovery method using multiple sequence comparisons based on evolutionary relationships. Inventors: Frank Ruddle; Kenta Sumiyama; Chang-Bae Kim. Assignee: Yale University. Issued: July 12, 2005.

According to the abstract, “short conserved DNA sequences can be identified among three or more species by selecting DNA sequences from species having a total genetic distance larger than one substitution per site at a neutrally evolving region and calculating the total substitutions using pair-wise genetic distances, with the pairs for comparison selected based on phylogenetic relationships.”

 

Datapoint

26.9 billion

Bases sequenced by the Joint Genome Institute in FY 2005 as of July 27.