FRANKENCELL: Scientists Narrow Gene Code
A team of geneticists have "come close" to determining the number of genes required for life, the Washington Post reports (Weiss, 12/10). Once the life recipe is determined, scientists could possibly construct a "Frankencell" -- an organism built from scratch using raw DNA and certain strings of genetic code. (Friend, USA Today, 12/10). The team found that about 300 genes are needed for "a candidate life form to pass for 'alive'," a state generally defined by the ability to reproduce and respond to the environment (Washington Post, 12/10). The team at the Institute for Genomic Research found the tiniest known living organism, Mycoplasma bacterium, and discovered its essential genes. "The analysis suggests that 265 to 350 of the 480 protein-coding genes of M. genitalium are essential under laboratory growth conditions, including about 100 genes of unknown function," Clyde Hutchison and colleagues wrote in their report published in the journal Science (Fox, Reuters/Boston Globe, 12/10).
Sowing Seeds of Destruction?
Although the discovery "could shed new light on the origins of life and the myriad ways that biology has cooked itself up since evolution first stirred the primordial soup," some warn that the ability to build life in a laboratory could be liberating, or could "sow seeds of destruction." Craig Venter of Celera Genomics, the senior scientist on the report, argued that the manufactured cells could be used, for example, to clean up toxic wastes with "unprecedented efficiency," or they could be programmed to serve as "horrendous biological weapons." He contended that the fear people have about gene researchers "playing God" could strengthen. Mildred Cho of the Stanford University Center for Biomedical Ethics said that the creation of new, free-living life forms "does not violate any fundamental moral precepts or boundaries, but does raise questions that are essential to consider before the technology advances further." Arthur Caplan, a University of Pennsylvania ethicist who served on the Institute for Genomic Research team, said, "Ultimately, the definitive debate over what life is and when life begins is up to us as a society" (Washington Post, 12/10).