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Venter Center's Synthetic Biology Goal Gains Traction in Game of Musical Genomes

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) — Researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute have transplanted an entire genome from one bacterial cell into the cell of another bacterium in what could be a significant milestone in synthetic genomics.
 
In a conference call with reporters yesterday, Venter and JCVI colleagues described how they transferred the genome, a breakthrough that could eventually lead to the creation of new and man-made organisms.
 
The research is part of Venter’s plan to use such custom-made organisms as constituents of new biofuels.
 
In the experiment, published today in Science, the JCVI researchers stripped all proteins from M. mycoides and transplanted the resulting naked DNA into M. capricolum, a highly similar bacterium and one without a cell wall to prohibit the transfer. Both bugs are goat pathogens. M. mycoides has around 1,214,067 base pairs.
 
The researchers sequenced the bacterial genomes and used their reactions to an antibiotic to determine if the transplants were successes or failures.  
 
The experiment raised many questions. For instance, among the cells in which the transplant took hold, what caused them to “boot up,” as Venter put it, and become the other organism? Also, there is a question about what exactly happens to the replaced DNA, and what controls its destination.
 
“We don’t have any idea yet really how widely applicable this would be,” according to JCVI researcher Clyde Hutchison. “Our hunch is one could make it work for other systems, but you could think of another barriers.”
 
Though “synthetic biology has yet to be proven,” Venter said the bacterial transplant is “a step closer to knowing it’s provable.”
 
Of course there will be barriers in progressing from the transplant of this simple organism's genome into another, and the development of designer bacteria with particular functions, said researcher Hamilton Smith, group leader in the JCVI’s synthetic biology division.
 
But “once that first barrier is passed we think what’s taken several years to get to this point will take only months to get to the next stages,” Smith added.
 
‘Revolution in Biology’?
 
The genome transplant report came a few days after the Kavli Foundation, a research-focused nonprofit in California, made a public call for an international effort to push synthetic genomics, which the foundation called a coming “revolution in biology.”
 
"We face daunting problems of climate change, energy, health, and water resources,” the joint statement said. “Synthetic biology offers solutions to these issues: microorganisms that convert plant matter to fuels or that synthesize new drugs or target and destroy rogue cells in the body."
 
The group called for greater efforts to create new hardware and new software and an increased push in nanotechnologies, as well as enhanced social involvement with the life sciences, and synthetic biology in particular.
 
The complete Kavli report can be seen here.

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