Wednesday, 9 January 2008
Synthetic DNA on the Brink of Yielding New Life Forms
It has been 50 years since scientists first created DNA in a test tube, stitching ordinary chemical ingredients together to make life's most extraordinary molecule.
Until recently, however, even the most sophisticated laboratories could make only small snippets of DNA (an extra gene or two to be inserted into corn plants to help the plants ward off insects for example).
Now researchers are poised to cross a dramatic barrier: the creation of brand new life forms driven by completely artificial DNA.
Scientists have already built the world's first entirely handcrafted chromosome: a large looping strand of DNA made from scratch in a laboratory, containing all the instructions a microbe needs to live and reproduce.
This year they intend to transplant it into a cell where it is expected to ‘boot itself up,’ like software downloaded from the Internet, and cajole the waiting cell to do its bidding.
And while the first synthetic chromosome is a plagiarized version of a natural one, others that code for life forms that have never existed before are already under construction.
This will be a watershed event, blurring the line between biological and artificial; and forcing a rethinking of what it means for a thing to be alive.