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Venter, Launching New Company, Hopes to Synthesize Genome to Create Bacterium

NEW YORK, June 29 (GenomeWeb News) - 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 application 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 Venter -- 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' technology is still being developed. The company, 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 said.

 

After designing and producing a synthetic chromosome -- M. genitalium has just one -- the team plans to develop a proof of concept in either of two bio-energy applications: hydrogen or ethanol.

 

Though the technology is still being developed, what is well-known is the way Venter's team was able to create the bacteriophage phiX174. As GenomeWeb News reported in 2003, researchers at what was at the time known as the Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives used short oligonucleotides and adapted PCR into a technique called polymerase cycle assembly, or PCA, to build this genome in 14 days. Like PCR, PCA produces double-stranded gene sequences from single-stranded templates.

 

Researchers on that study included Ham Smith, who is now executive vice president and co-chief scientific officer at Synthetic Genomics, and Clyde Hutchison, of the Universityof North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who is president of the company's scientific advisory board. Juan Enriquez, founding director of HarvardBusinessSchool's Life Sciences Project, is president.

 

At a 2003 press conference announcing results from that research, Venter stressed that his team would not commercialize PCA, nor would he file patents on it. "We'd rather wait till the next stage when there's a clear-cut application: for instance if we have something that produces hydrogen that might hold some value."

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