WASHINGTON -- It's the kind of experiment once only imagined in the movies. For the first time, a team of scientists have produced a living cell powered by manmade DNA.
"One that we made by starting with the genetic code in the computer, four bottles of chemicals and building every one of the million-plus base pairs in the right order, and then finally having this large molecule, inserting it in a recipient cell," geneticist J. Craig Venter explained.
The bacterium is then transformed into a completely new species and reproduced billions of times.
Venter says the project is the first step towards the ultimate goal of designing organisms that work differently from the way nature intended.
The cells could be used to turn algae into fuel, manufacture vaccines, and to even clean up oil spills.
However, in the hands of bioterrorists, the discovery could have devastating effects, perhaps allowing them to create a deadly new virus.
The Ethics Issue
There is also the question of ethics. Hollywood films have long portrayed such scientific endeavors as lunacy or as men attempting to 'play God.'
"We don't know what will happen with these novel organisms, or even novel species in the future, once they're released into nature," said Jennifer Miller, founder of Bioethics International. "So, we don't know the effects on overall ecology or even the health of man as we continue to move forward in these scientific developments."
Just how sophisticated is this synthetic cell? Its DNA sequence is more than one million base-pairs long. By comparison, the "human" genome is far larger - more than three billion base-pairs long.
Scientists still have a lot of research to do before the discovery creates anything useful. But it has already changed the world of science forever.