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Scientists to synthesize new life form

By STEVE MITCHELL, UPI Medical Correspondent

ROCKVILLE, Md., Nov. 21 (UPI) -- A biotech company said Thursday it has been given a grant by the federal government to genetically engineer an organism, with the aim of creating a bacteria-like life form that could be used to produce alternative fuel sources.

The Department of Energy has given a three-year, $3-million grant to The Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives, of Rockville, Md., to begin work on the project. IBEA's president is J. Craig Venter, who gained notoriety two years ago for rapidly decoding the human genome at his former company, Celera. Since then, Venter left Celera to join IBEA, a company that seeks to use biological organisms to produce alternative fuel sources and reduce pollution.

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"With fossil fuel consumption continuing to rise and with it serious environmental damage to our planet, it is imperative that we explore alternative ideas to abate this situation," Venter said in a written statement. "IBEA was founded with the goal of exploring biological mechanisms for dealing with carbon sequestration and to study the creation of other potential energy sources such as hydrogen. We believe that building a synthetic chromosome is an important step toward realizing these goals because we could potentially engineer an organism with the ideal qualities to begin to cope with our energy issues."

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The research emerged from work done in 1995 by The Institute for Genomic Research -- also of Rockville -- Venter's former company before he left to start Celera. In those efforts, Venter and colleagues sequenced the genome of a bacteria called Mycoplasma genitalium. This bacteria has the smallest number of genes of any living cell and the work found of the 517 genes in Mycoplasma, only about 300 were necessary for life.

The new project is similar to cloning. In a concept called minimal genome, researchers will modify DNA from Mycoplasma by reducing it to only those genes necessary for life. Then they will insert the attenuated material back into a bacterial cell that has had its DNA removed.

Prior to deciding to proceed with the work, IBEA convened a bioethics panel consisting of biologists, philosophers, a rabbi, a Catholic priest and an Episcopalian priest to consider the issues involved in generating a new life form.

"We didn't see any reason why this work shouldn't go forward," panel chair Mildred Cho, a senior research scholar at Stanford University's center for biomedical ethics in Palo Alto, Calif., told United Press International.

The panel agreed "calling this a new life form is overstating it," Cho said. "They're genetically modifying a bacteria. They're removing its chromosome and replacing it with one that's been modified to make it smaller."

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At present, 10 scientists at IBEA are working on this project under the direction of Nobel laureate Hamilton Smith, scientific director of IBEA, at the Maryland Technology Center in Rockville. IBEA plans to increase the staff to 25 and move into new laboratory being constructed on the TIGR campus. TIGR declined to comment on this story.

"There's no reason in principle it can't be done. Technically (however) it's a very challenging prospect and likely to be very expensive," Clyde A. Hutchison III, professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill who collaborated with TIGR on their initial genome work on Mycoplasma, told UPI. "The advantage of this organism is simply that it has the smallest genome of any cell that we know about that can grow and divide," Hutchison said, adding the smaller the genome is, the easier it would be to construct.

The advantage of engineering a genome is it would allow researchers to add specific genes to get the organism to do what they want -- in this case produce alternative fuel sources such as hydrogen.

Although it is commonplace to manipulate existing bacteria species to get them to produce certain substances such as antibiotics and other drugs, the IBEA project might offer further advantages. "The advantage of a synthetic organism over manipulating natural organisms ... is then you would have a lot more control over the properties of the cell than if you rely on natural mechanisms," Hutchison said. "For either good purposes or bad purposes ... you'd be in a better position to design exactly what you want."

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The bioethics panel was concerned the technology IBEA generates in creating this new life form could be put to use to create new pathogens that could be used as bioweapons, Cho said.

Hutchison discounted that notion, however.

"I don't think at present it's the way anyone would go to design a biological weapon," he said. "It's certainly not a thing I'd be concerned about someone doing unless they really have a lot of resources ... scientific resources, good people who knew what they were doing."

In a few years, however, as this technology advances, it could become more feasible to use it to design new biowarfare agents, he said.

Another concern is the new life form escaping into the environment. But Hutchison said Mycoplasma does not represent much of a threat, although it is a human pathogen and can cause urethritis, a disease that has symptoms vaguely similar to gonorrhea.

"The organism is not a major pathogen and it really can't survive well in nature unless its in the proper medium in the lab or in a mammalian host," Hutchison said. "The organism is pretty sickly, it requires a rich medium to grow in the lab and it is unlikely to escape and if a synthetic one escaped it'd probably be less dangerous than the natural one which isn't much of a threat itself," he said.

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In addition, the genes essential for the organism to infect humans are not essential for life and these could be disabled or deleted, he said. As a further precaution, scientists easily could engineer a suicide gene so the organism would self-destruct it if were to escape outside of laboratory conditions, he said.

"People always worry about something unexpected happening ... but in the genetic engineering that's been going on in the last 28 years or so, there have been little if any problems of unexpected things causing health problems," Hutchison noted.

The Department of Energy did not respond to phone calls from UPI seeking comment.

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