In a press release on Thursday researchers from the J. Craig Venter Institute said that their work is the “proof of the principle that genomes can be designed on the computer, chemically made in the laboratory and transplanted into a recipient cell to produce a new self-replicating cell controlled only by the synthetic genome”.
The work could be used to specifically design bacteria to produce biofuels or help clean up environmental hazards. Possible applications include the production of algae to help clean up carbon dioxide, one of the principal greenhouse gases blamed for global warming, and improvements in the development of vaccines.
The team spent 15 years on the publication of their research, work they said “consumed” them. Craig Venter was also keen to point out that they had made a lengthy analysis of the possible implications.
“We have also been equally focused on addressing the societal implications of what we believe will be one of the most powerful technologies and industrial drivers for societal good,” he said.
However Venter stressed that the research was not an attempt at “playing God”.
“That’s a term that comes up every time there is a new medical or scientific breakthrough associated with biology,” he told the BBC.
“It’s been a goal of humanity from the earliest ages to try and control nature – that’s how we got agriculture, that’s how we got domesticated animals – this is the next stage in our understanding.”
The researchers added special “watermarks” to the synthetic genome to distinguish its biological signature from a natural example. The watermarks included the names of 46 scientists and authors, including the quotation, “to live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life,” from Irish writer James Joyce.