he Department of Energy has given a $3
million grant to Dr. J. Craig Venter, leader of the private
effort to decode the human genome, to develop the best
possible approximation to an artificially created living
Under the grant, which was first reported by The Washington Post yesterday,
scientists at an institute founded by Dr. Venter will try to
synthesize the chromosome of a simple bacterium.
The ability to create a living cell from scratch, by
chemically synthesizing all its components, is far beyond
present technology. But several years ago, Dr. Clyde
Hutchinson of the University of North Carolina tried an
alternative route to the same goal by taking one of the
simplest known bacteria, Mycoplasma genitalium, and trying to
define the minimum number of genes it needed to survive by
stripping out all the unnecessary ones. Dr. Hutchinson
reported in 1999 that the microbe could get by with as few as
265 genes, which could be thought of as the minimal set of
genes needed for life.
A piece of DNA containing these genes might in principle be
synthesized and inserted into a cell that had also been
assembled artificially, probably with bits and pieces from
Dr. Venter, who helped lead the decoding of the M.
genitalium genome in 1995, has now resumed Dr. Hutchinson's
project at the Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives.
In a statement, Dr. Venter said the hope was that "we could
potentially engineer an organism with the ideal qualities to
begin to cope with our energy issues," perhaps one that could
create hydrogen or absorb carbon dioxide.
Whether this organism would be a new life form or a greatly
modified bacterium could be debated, but Dr. Venter told The
Associated Press, "The description of this being a
modification rather than making new life is probably correct."