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Researchers Hope to Create New Form of Life

November 21, 2002|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Scientists will announce today that they will try to create a new form of life in a laboratory dish, the Washington Post reported.

Gene scientist J. Craig Venter and Hamilton Smith, a Nobel laureate, will announce their hopes of creating a single-cell, partially manufactured organism with the minimum number of genes necessary to sustain life.

If the plan works, the microscopic cell will begin feeding and dividing to create a population of cells unlike any known to exist, the Post reported on its Web site.

The cell will be hobbled to render it incapable of infecting people -- a safety step. It also will be confined and designed to die if it does escape into the environment, the paper said.

The project could lay the scientific groundwork for a new generation of biological weapons. But Venter and Smith said the project could also help in enhancing the nation's ability to detect and counter existing biological weapons.

The project is funded with a three-year, $3-million grant from the Energy Department.

The plan is to figure out and model in a computer all aspects of the biology of one organism.

"We are wondering if we can come up with a molecular definition of life," Venter told the Post. "The goal is to fundamentally understand the components of the most basic living cell."

The plan will begin with Mycoplasma genitalium, a minuscule organism that lives in the genital tracts of people and may cause or contribute to an inflammation of the urethra. All genetic material will be removed from the organism. Scientists will synthesize a string of genetic material, resembling a naturally occurring chromosome, that they hope will contain the minimum number of M. genitalium genes needed to sustain life.

The artificial chromosome will then be inserted in the cell, and will be tested for its ability to survive and reproduce.

Venter and Smith founded Celera Genomics Corp., the Rockville, Md.-based company where researchers tied government scientists in the race to decipher the human genome two years ago.

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