'Synthetic life' breakthrough announced by scientists
The synthetic cell looks identical to the "wild type"
Scientists in the US have succeeded in developing the first synthetic living cell.
The researchers constructed a bacterium's "genetic software" and transplanted it into a host cell.
The resulting microbe then looked and behaved like the species "dictated" by the synthetic DNA.
The advance, published in Science, has been hailed as a scientific landmark, but critics say there are dangers posed by synthetic organisms.
The team hopes eventually to design bacterial cells that will produce medicines and fuels and even absorb greenhouse gases.
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This is the first time any synthetic DNA has been in complete control of a cell
Dr Craig Venter J Craig Venter Institute
The research team was led by Dr Craig Venter of the J Craig Venter Institute in Maryland and California.
He and his colleagues had previously made a synthetic bacterial genome, and it has transplanted the genome of one bacterium into another.
Now, the scientists have put both methods together, to create what they call a "synthetic cell", although only its genome is synthetic.
Dr Venter likened the chromosome to new "software" for the cell.
The researchers copied an existing bacterial genome. They sequenced its genetic code and then used synthesis machines to chemically construct a copy.
"We've now been able to take that synthetic chromosome, transplant it into a recipient cell - a different organism," Dr Venter told BBC News.
"As soon as this new software goes into the cell, that cell reads that software and converts the cell into the species specified in that genetic code."
The resulting cells have replicated over a billion times, producing copies of cells with the constructed, synthetic DNA.
"This is the first time any synthetic DNA has been in complete control of a cell," said Dr Venter.
'New industrial revolution'
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If you release new organisms into the environment, you can do more harm than good
Dr Helen Wallace Genewatch UK
Dr Venter and his colleagues hope eventually to design and build new bacteria that will perform useful functions.
"I think they're going to potentially create a new industrial revolution," he said.
"If we can really get cells to do the production that we want, they could help wean us off oil and reverse some of the damage to the environment by capturing carbon dioxide."
Dr Venter and his colleagues are already collaborating with pharmaceutical and fuel companies to design and develop chromosomes for bacteria that would produce useful fuels and new vaccines.
But critics say that the potential benefits of synthetic organisms have been overstated.
Dr Helen Wallace from Genewatch UK, an organisation that monitors developments in genetic technologies, told BBC News that the use of synthetic bacteria could be dangerous.
"If you release new organisms into the environment, you can do more harm than good," she said.
"By releasing them into areas of pollution, you're releasing a new kind of pollution.
"We don't know how these organisms will behave in the environment."
Dr Wallace accused Dr Venter of playing down the potential drawbacks.
"He isn't God." she said, "he's actually being very human; trying to get money invested in his technology and avoid regulation that would restrict its use."
But Dr Venter said that he was "driving the discussions" about the regulations governing this relatively new scentific field and about the ethical implications of the work.
He said: "In 2003, when we made the first synthetic virus, it underwent extensive ethical review that went all the way up to the level of the White House.
"And there have been extensive reviews including from the National Academy of Sciences, which has done a comprehensive report on this new field.
"We think these are important issues and we urge continued discussion that we want to take part in."
Dr Gos Micklem, a geneticist from the University of Cambridge said that the advance was "undoubtedly a landmark" study.
But, he said, "there is already a wealth of simple, cheap, powerful and mature techniques for genetically engineering a range of organisms. Therefore, for the time being, this approach is unlikely to supplant existing methods for genetic engineering".
The ethical discussions surrounding the creation of synthetic life are set to continue.
Professor Julian Savulescu, from the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford, said the potential of this science was "in the far future, but real and significant: dealing with pollution, new energy sources, new forms of communication".
"But the risks are also unparalleled," he conintued. "We need new standards of safety evaluation for this kind of radical research and protections from military or terrorist misuse and abuse.
"These could be used in the future to make the most powerful bioweapons imaginable. The challenge is to eat the fruit without the worm."