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Synthetic Genomics

written by: •edited by: Paul Arnold•updated: 6/17/2010

Synthetic Genomics is a company that has been set up to build artificial life forms from the basic blocks of DNA. The aim is to come up with new ways of tackling environmental problems.

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    Craig Venter Synthetic Genomics

    Synthetic Genomics was founded by Craig Venter in 2005, along with some other prominent scientists and investors. Venter is a pioneer in genome mapping and competed with the Human Genome Project in the race to sequence the entire human genetic code.

    His current venture, Synthetic Genomics, aims to create artificial life in the lab to tackle environmental issues. The company is trying to produce biological sources of fuel, as well as developing new methods to clean up toxic waste.

    The master plan is to build life forms from proteins, DNA, and chromosomes, and then stitch them together and jump start the entity into life. These synthetic microbes could be mini-factories pumping out sources of clean fuel. There have been some major milestones in the attempt to create synthetic life; in 2007 Venter and Synthetic Genomics reported that they had successfully moved an entire genome from one bacterium to another. It was a development that Venter claims can be used to test any artificial chromosomes that he makes. And in July 2009 Synthetic Genomics and ExxonMobil Research and Engineering signed a $600 million deal to develop biofuels from photosynthetic algae.

    Photosynthetic algae use the energy from sunlight to convert carbon dioxide into lipids and some long chain hydrocarbons. However, naturally occurring photosynthetic algae do not do this at commercially viable quantities or rates. So enter the scientists and their technologies to give nature a helping hand.

    The immediate goals will be to;

    • Identify or engineer superior strains
    • Work out the most efficient systems for large-scale cultivation of algae and conversion of their products into biofuels.

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    Synthetic Genomics Controversy

    The research of Synthetic Genomics has unsurprisingly attracted a huge amount of controversy with opponents worried that something unexpected and malicious might accidentally emerge from the lab, or that the technology could be hijacked to create biological weapons. The first part of this argument has echoes of the controversies that have surrounded many other scientific advances down the generations. Electricity can be used to fry a man or incubate a premature baby. Does IVF create Frankenstein’s monster? - as many critics of the technology feared in the late 1970s, or is it a chance to give an infertile couple the children that they have hoped and prayed for.

    There are also concerns that efforts to patent the research could restrict scientific advances. Venter counters by saying that Synthetic Genomics are not doing anything that other institutes do not do.

    The idea that scientists in a laboratory (no matter how noble the public proclamations of their intent) are creating life is a step too far for many people who are concerned that the men and women in white coats are playing God. They wonder who regulates the technology, who polices the scientists and keeps them in check?

    Open communication between scientists and society at large, without the filter of the tabloid press may allay some fears and concerns. It will also inform legislative and regulatory bodies who will then be in a reasonable position to decide if, and what controls these emerging technologies must operate under.