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Craig Venter and his team attacked over wide-ranging patent applications

One of the last frontiers with the potential to change the way people around the world live their daily lives is that of genetics. With different bits of DNA and genes scientists are moving towards being able to create artificial organisms in their labs to carry out different sorts of tasks.

The tasks these synthetic organisms may be designed to carry out could be as beneficial as producing medications or a new type of fuel to break us free of our reliance on petroleum to nefarious uses like cobbling together synthetic viruses and pathogens into the sort of super-virus Stephen King envision in his book, The Stand.

One scientist, Craig Venter, says he and his team are on the verge of creating an artificial organism, and some rumors say that his team has actually created the organism and is merely waiting for a scientific paper to be published to reveal their work.

Venter says the artificial organism would be simple, consisting of only a few hundred genes, yet he goes on to tell Business Week, “it will be one of the bright milestones in human history, changing our conceptual view of life.”

Venter also stands to make fantastical sums of money with patents that he and his company have filed that are generating lots of controversy. Venter imagines creating organisms covered by these patents worth billions or trillions of dollars.

The ETC Group, a watchdog organization in Canada, attacked Venter for his wide-ranging patent applications accusing him of trying to create a “Microbesoft” monopoly of synthetic biology. However, many feel that if Venter’s research can break us free of our reliance on polluting petroleum fuels the risk is worth the gain.

However, even ETC feels that Venter's discovery will be more important than the discoveries of scientists who have cloned animals, like the Korean team who cloned a dog in December of 2006.

The ability to create synthetic organisms also has a potentially dark and lethal side as well where terrorist groups could buy DNA strands they can combine to create lethal pathogens to use as weapons. David C. Magnus, Stanford University’s center for Biomedical Ethics director, tells Business Week, “There are plenty of people lying awake worrying about this.”

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RE: Hmm
By geddarkstorm on 12/14/2007 4:51:03 PM , Rating: 2
None of this is as easy as it sounds (or as the article makes it sound). From my understanding of what they've been doing, they've basically destroyed a bacteria's normal chromosome and replaced it with a totally artificial one to hijack the cell; so it isn't from scratch, but it is truly transforming it into a man-made artificial organism. However, you certainly can't just throw DNA "off the shelf" into it and have it work, hence why this, if he succeeds, will be such a massive milestone. It is incredibly hard due to all the interplay and immensely complex molecular cross talk that goes on in cells to regulate gene expression and allow survival/growth/replication that must be set up just perfectly right to work; so basically these things will be very fragile organisms.

Now, they could be made to do cool things when taking genes from many different loosely related bacterial species and throwing them all together into our man made chromosomes (which is pretty much what Venter is doing already, if I understand correctly what his lab is up to), such as detoxifying soil (since there are bacteria that do that), or producing hydrogen (as, again, there are those that do that). We can't make de novo genes however, we can only use what already exists due to the fact that we still cannot look at a DNA sequence and tell the structure and function of the protein therein encoded.

It's going to take decades to get this stuff to any mass level of production and practicality, and it won't be a panacea, but only applicable to certain applications. I would never want to use them to try to take out human cells of any type, even cancer, as mutations will always happen and it'll be far easier for these artificial things to turn nefarious than to keep them doing what we want. Finally, though we could inadvertently destroy the planet's ecology with super artificial bacteria if we aren't careful, it's still very unlikely. They'll be pretty fragile creatures unless we purposefully make them ungodly robust, and even if they mutate, there'll be things out there mutating in response to deal with, prey on, or out compete them.

"Intel is investing heavily (think gazillions of dollars and bazillions of engineering man hours) in resources to create an Intel host controllers spec in order to speed time to market of the USB 3.0 technology." -- Intel blogger Nick Knupffer
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