From: Andy Soos, ENN
Published May 21, 2010 05:00 PM

The New Synthetic Cell

J. Craig Venter has created a “synthetic cell” by synthesizing a complete bacterial genome and using it to take over a cell. Venter’s breakthrough, reported in the online edition of Science, represents a preliminary step toward the goal of creating microbes from scratch in the lab and using them to make biofuels, vaccines, and other products.


Venter’s achievement could one day lead to a technology where, though engineering the genome, individual cells could be turned into their own miniature refineries for harvesting carbon dioxide and generating hydrocarbons.

Synthetic Genomics has a contract with Exxon to generate biofuels from algae.

Although some experts hailed Venter’s breakthrough, others said his approach is unpromising because it will take years to design new organisms to produce biofuels, while progress toward making biofuels is already being achieved with conventional genetic engineering approaches.

The cell was created by stitching together the genome of a goat pathogen called Mycoplasma mycoides from smaller stretches of DNA synthesised in the lab, and inserting the genome into the empty cytoplasm of a related bacterium. The transplanted genome booted up in its host cell, and then divided over and over to make billions of M. mycoides cells.

Venter's team made the new genome out of DNA sequences that had initially been made by a machine, but bacteria and yeast cells were used to stitch together and duplicate the million base pairs that it contains. The cell into which the synthetic genome was then transplanted contained its own proteins, lipids and other molecules. In a way this is just another form of genetic engineering.

There is no apparent biological difference between synthetic bacteria and the real thing, says Andy Ellington, a synthetic biologist at the University of Texas in Austin.

Biofuels from algae is new and developing technology. ExxonMobil has been engaged in a long term effort to examine the potential of the next generation of renewable fuels.

Algae can be grown using land and water unsuitable for plant or food production, unlike some other first- and second-generation biofuel feedstocks. Select species of algae produce bio-oils through the natural process of photosynthesis — requiring only sunlight, water and carbon dioxide. Bio-oil produced by photosynthetic algae and the resultant biofuel will have molecular structures that are similar to the petroleum and refined products we use today. Algae have the potential to yield greater volumes of biofuel per acre of production than other biofuel sources. Algae could yield more than 2000 gallons of fuel per acre per year of production.

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