AN AMERICAN researcher has claimed he is just weeks away from realising a science-fiction dream: the creation of artificial life.
Craig Venter, a controversial and flamboyant DNA scientist, said he is about to produce a synthetic living cell that is capable of reproducing itself.
If Venter delivers on his bold promise it will rank as one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of recent years. It could open the door to a new generation of artificial life forms designed to tackle everything from disease in humans to environmental crises.
But while the Maryland-based scientist has caused excitement in scientific quarters, he has also prompted a renewed ethical debate on the acceptable limits of research into the building blocks of life. As well as concern over "playing god", some experts fear the creation of a new species could have safety implications.
Chromosomes are at the centre of Venter's breakthrough. In the simplest forms of life, every cell has a chromosome, which is a long string of DNA that "tells" the cell what kind it is, what to do and when. He has used laboratory chemicals to create an artificial chromosome, based on a "stripped-down" version of a bacterium.
The next step involves inserting the artificial chromosome into a natural cell from a bacterium. Venter said the artificial chromosome will take over its host cell, effectively becoming a new artificial form of life. Crucially, it will have the ability to reproduce itself.
Venter believes the technique will work because his team has already successfully transplanted chromosomes from one bacteria cell to another. If the technique works as expected, the next step will be to genetically alter the genetic make-up of the synthetic chromosome to deal with specific real-work tasks. For example, it is theoretically possible to make an artificial life form to consume greenhouse gases.
Venter, a Vietnam veteran and a yachtsman, has provoked controversy in the past because of his flamboyant style and his commercial approach to science. In the 1990s, he turned the human genome project into a competition by effectively racing publicly funded scientists to complete the map of the human gene.
He said: "This will be a very important philosophical step in the history of our species. We are going from reading our genetic code to the ability to write it. That gives us the hypothetical ability to do things never contemplated before."
Venter added he had carried out an ethical review before completing the experiment. He said: "We feel that this is good science. We are not afraid to take on things that are important just because they stimulate thinking. We are dealing in big ideas. We are trying to create a new value system for life. When dealing at this scale, you can't expect everybody to be happy."
Grahame Bulfield, vice-principal of Edinburgh University and professor of genetics, said: "This is a technical tour de force rather than an intellectual breakthrough. But it opens up molecular genetics to a huge range of new possibilities and applications, and should give much more control over how it is done."
James Milner-White, professor of structural bio-informatics at Glasgow University, said: "It's potentially very exciting. I would want to know more about what is happening in the experiments and whether the life forms they create are viable. I note that they haven't mentioned that yet. If the life forms are viable, then it could be very significant."
Dr Mark Bailey, a lecturer in genetics at Glasgow University, said:
"If this work does produce viable bacteria, the next step will be to add genes to them to get them to do what you want them to do. Adding the genes is actually quite straightforward, but getting them to do what you want in the way you want is very challenging. That will take some years of work."
But the news has provoked concern among campaigners who want restraints on the research being pioneered by genetic scientists.
Pat Mooney, director of Canadian bioethics organisation ETC group, said: "Governments, and society in general, are way behind the ball. This is a wake-up call: what does it mean to create new life forms in a test tube?"
He said Venter was creating a "chassis on which you could build almost anything. It could be a contribution to humanity such as new drugs or a huge threat to humanity such as bio-weapons."