Friday, August 21, 2009

Genetic manipulation requires prudence

Daily Mail


The team that achieved the new scientific breakthrough deserves congratulations and accolades, but the jury is still out on genetic engineering. We simply do NOT have sufficient understanding of the consequences of making changes to genomes on the ecology of organisms. Our state of genetic engineering knowledge today is similar to the stone masons' knowledge of civil engineering in Medieval cathedral building. They understood the rules of thumb to build beautiful and lasting monuments to the glory of man's ingenuity, but they also occasionally misunderstood the laws of engineering, resulting in catastrophic failure and the cathedrals came crumbling down.

Unfortunately, genetic engineering impacts not just the people in the cathedral, but everyone in the world's ecosystem. One mistake by one minor geneticists in an unknown laboratory can have devastating consequences.

The team changed a fundamental part of the bacteria - adding new defenses against viral attacks. It enables the bacteria to survive. This may not seem significant but the implications can be devastating if the bacteria is released into the wild, and the ability is grafted into other dangerous bacteria. Imagine the wolf and rabbit ecosystem when rabbits can defend against the wolves.

Scientific understanding is great and necessary, but engineering achievements take time and patience and above all, prudence. With billions of dollars and oil corporations in the equation, it is time for government regulations to ensure the researches follow strict protocols to protect the world from potential global disasters. If we can spend billions in search of Weapons of Mass Destruction, we need to spend a little to prevent real and potentially devastating organisms of mass destruction.


Artificial life will be made to order in the laboratory within four months, a controversial biologist has claimed.

U.S genome expert Craig Venter, said his team have overcome a vital obstacle in the development of new man-made organisms.

The scientist, named as one of the most influential people in the world, said the first 'synthetic species' could be created this year.

Scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute, in Rockville, Maryland, successfully transplanted an entire synthetic genome from one bacteria into another for the first time.

They believe the 'gene swap' experiment will help scientists alter bacteria to perform a range of ambitious applications.

Synthetic microbes could make new vaccines, clean up toxic waste and design new antibiotics. They also hope they can use the technique to try to create entirely synthetic microbes.

The pioneering 'gene swap', published in the journal Science, was performed on a simple species of bacteria called Mycoplasma mycoides.

Carole Lartigue and colleagues removed the bacteria's entire genome and inserted it into yeast - an organism that is distant from bacteria on the tree of life.

Yeast is easier to manipulate in the lab and this process allowed the team to alter the genes - in this case, deleting one gene not necessary for bacteria to live.

Then they transplanted this genome into another species of bacteria, Mycoplasma capricolum.

The new organism began replicating and after a few divisions it produced a new strain of Mycoplasma mycoides, according to the Times.

It builds on a series of progressive steps. Lartigue's team successfully transplanted the genome of one bacteria into another for the first time in 2007.

They then created the first entirely man-made genome. But previous attempts to introduce the synthetic genome into another organism and take control of the new bacteria all failed.

Now the team has harnessed a biological process called methylation - where special molecules are added onto the cell's DNA - to protect them from viruses.

Writing in the journal Science, they said their method might be used to tinker with the genetics of a range of bacteria that have been difficult to engineer.

'Many medically or industrially important microbes are difficult to manipulate genetically,' they wrote.

'This has severely limited our understanding of pathogenesis and our ability to exploit the knowledge of microbial biology on a practical level.

'We hope that the cycle presented here can be applied to other species, to help solve these problems.'

Lartigue, who is now at the Biotechnology Industry Organisation, said there may have already identified a direct application in the development of animal vaccines.

The Mycoplasma mycoides bacterium they used causes a disease called pleuropneumonia in cattle and goats.

'There is an urgent need for vaccines,' they wrote. 'This technology could accelerate the construction of live vaccine strains.'

Venter, named as an author in the paper and who founded the institute, is working to make genetically manipulated or completely synthetic organisms.

Last month, Exxon Mobil Corp signed a $600million (£362million) deal with Venter's privately held Synthetic Genomics Inc to work on making biofuel from algae.

Venter has said he hopes to manipulate organisms to produce biofuels, clean up toxic waste and sequester carbon to slow global warming.

Researchers already regularly engineer life forms by adding or deleting genes.

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