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Synthetic life from scratch

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– For the first time we are close to creating artificial life for the first time.

So says Craig Venter, founder of the J.Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland, and famed for creating the first cell with a synthetic genome.

“We think we’re close, but we’ve not submitted a paper yet,” he said at the Global Grand Challenges summit in London this week.

Biologist J. Craig Venter
Biologist J. Craig Venter

Venter announced in 2010 that he had brought to life an almost completely synthetic version of the bacterium Mycoplasma mycoides, by transplanting it into the vacant shell of another bacterium. Venter’s latest creation, which he has dubbed the Hail Mary Genome, will be made from scratch with genes he and his institute colleagues, Clyde Hutchison and Hamilton Smith, consider indispensable for life.

The team is using computer simulations to better understand what is needed to create a simple, self-replicating cell. “Once we have a minimal chassis, we can add anything else to it,” he says.

Venter’s quest to engineer algae to produce more oil than usual is also going well. “We’ve been able to increase photosynthesis threefold, meaning that we get three times as much energy per photon (of sunlight) as from natural algae,” he says. He also announced that his programmed to scour the oceans for novel microscopic life has so far turned up 80 million genes new to biology.

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