Scientists Hope to Make New Bacterium
Fri Nov 22,10:29 AM ET Add Health - AP to My Yahoo!

By PAUL RECER, AP Science Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) - Some experts say that the research to create a new species of single-cell life could open a new door to biological hazards.

A group led by J. Craig Venter, director of a private program that mapped the human genome (news - web sites), plans to modify a simple microbe and drive it with artificial genes to make a hydrogen fuel. Venter's group has received a $3 million grants from the Energy Department to make a new type of bacterium using DNA manufactured in the lab from basic chemicals.

Venter said the goal is to build a bacterium capable of making hydrogen fuel or, alternatively, to develop a microbe that can absorb and store carbon dioxide, thus removing a surplus of that greenhouse gas from the atmosphere.

Along the way, he said, scientists will learn on a molecular level the minimum genes a cell needs to thrive and reproduce and how to artificially make those and other genes.

Some experts worry that by learning how to artificially create the basic genes essential to life, even in a fragile, obscure microbe, scientists could put a new weapon into the hands of terrorists.

"We have to be very careful about controlling the purposes of this research," said Kathy Kinlaw, an executive in the Center for Ethics at Emory University. She said that science ultimately will achieve what Venter is attempting, but careful oversight is needed to prevent the technology's misuse.

The federal grant was given to the Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives, a company founded by Venter. The organization now has 10 scientists, including Nobel laureate Dr. Hamilton O. Smith, an expert on genetic science and famed for his skill in handling DNA in the laboratory. Eventually, the institute will grow to a scientific staff of about 25.

Venter said the plan is to extend work that he and others started in 1995 at the Rockville, Md.-based Institute for Genomic Research. Researchers there sequenced the genes of a bacterium called Mycoplasma genitalium, one of the simplest microbes known with only one chromosome and 517 genes. By contrast, humans have about 30,000 genes and 23 pairs of chromosomes in each cell.

Once the normal gene complement of M. genitalium was identified, the researchers began systematically removing genes to determine how many were essential for life. In 1999, they published a paper that narrowed the minimum needs of M. genitalium to 265 to 350 genes.

Under the grant, Venter said the researchers will use basic chemicals to snythesize the DNA in M. genitalium's single chromosome. They will then use radiation to kill the chromosome in a normal M. genitalium and replace it with the lab-made DNA.

Venter said the cell will retain some of its functioning parts, such as enzymes and RNA, but that all of its genetic structure will be synthetic.

"The description of this being a modification rather than making new life is probably correct," said Venter. "There is a philosophical question of how many genes can you change in an organism" before it becomes a new life form.

Dr. Clyde Hutchison of the University of North Carolina, a microbiologist who was part of Venter's team at the Maryland institute, said M. genitalium is a good microbe to use because it is so simple and poses no safety concerns.

The microbe lacks the tough cellular wall of most bacteria and is a total parasite, depending on its host to make even the most basic amino acids, he said.

In theory, a new understanding about the basic workings of a cell could help develop new bioweapons, said Venter, but the plans call for withholding some key information his group discovers.

"We will be cautious about how and where we disclose new techniques," he said. "We don't want a group of crazies to deliberately make something that is harmful."

Venter was the head of Celeria Genomics, a private group that sequenced the human genome at the same time as an international, government-supported project. The two groups published their findings in separate journals and were jointly honored in a 2000 White House ceremony.