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The Synthetic Cell: A New Frontier for Science


The idea of creating a cell entirely from scratch might seem impossible, something only achievable with advanced technology in the distant future. But a team of scientists from the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland have managed to accomplish this very goal. Their research opens the door to new possibilities in the world of biology, and may serve as the blueprint for further scientific breakthroughs.

The J. Craig Venter research team announced their findings to the world in May 2010. According to news reports, the scientists used artificial genes to create a bacterial cell, fully capable of reproducing on its own. The team initially drew up the proposed cell on computers, using over 1 million types of base pairs of DNA in the cell’s genetic code. Once the design was complete, the researchers then laid the groundwork for the cell by mixing four distinct chemicals with sections of DNA. Yeast and multiple types of bacteria were used to meld the hundreds of DNA pieces together into a singular genome (a genome contains all of an organism’s inheritable traits).

With this step complete, the team then placed their newly minted genome into the body of an empty cell. Within a relatively short amount of time, the genome adopted the cell’s body as its own, morphing it into a different and new cell species. To distinguish their synthetic cell from a natural cell, the team added some distinctive markings to their handiwork. These engravings included the names of all 46 scientists who contributed to the project, an internet address for the new bacteria and quotes by author James Joyce and physicist Richard Feynman.

The cell represents the culmination of 15 years and $40 million worth of research. The project’s research team claims that the cell represents the smallest amount of genes required to support a living organism.

It would be a profound understatement to suggest that the J. Craig Venter Institute is excited at the potential that their discovery holds. The team believes that similar artificial cells could be used to make new vaccines, and may be used to help clean up massive oil spills, presumably through the manufacture of synthetic algae cells. The researchers are also optimistic that their invention could provide a key piece of the puzzle towards the development of new biofuels and biochemicals.

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