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Thursday, February 23, 2017

ARTIFICIAL LIFE

Algae being developed as a fuel source
Algae being developed as a fuel source
The dream of understanding life well enough to create it from scratch sounds like something out of Frankenstein. But Craig Venter is getting there, partly using investor money to fund the work. “There’s no government funding to make a synthetic species,” he says. In 2010, a team led by Venter that included his closest lieutenant, Hamilton Smith, and synthetic-biology wunderkind Daniel Gibson synthesized a genome for the bacterium Mycoplasma mycoides but with slight changes: their names and a James Joyce quote, all translated into a DNA code. Then they inserted the synthetic DNA into a bacterium and its original genome was destroyed. The cell functioned with the new, man-made DNA.

They’ve since made another bacterium whose genome has been edited to lack any extraneous genes. Researchers thought bacteria needed only 250 genes to stay alive, but Venter’s team found its germ needed 473 and nobody knows what 149 of them do. The resulting minimal genome could be useful for understanding which genes are really important.

But there have already been commercial applications for this work. Synthetic Genomics Inc. (SGI) was founded around them in 2005. In 2009 Exxon Mobil pledged up to $300 million to create algae that can produce a biofuel that is cheaper than gasoline.

Other projects involve drug manufacturing (including a project to rapidly prototype experimental vaccines), a partnership with Johnson & Johnson in drug research and an efort, with the biotechnology firm United Therapeutics, to create pigs whose organs can be safely transplanted into humans. SGI has also made a relatively inexpensive DNA printer that allows bench scientists to easily modify genetic material. It costs between $50,000 and $75,000. Fifty have been sold so far, but SGI chief executive Oliver Fetzer says the near-term addressable market could be worth $500 million. M.H.

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