Scientists Say They May Have Created “The First Synthetic Cell.”

ABC World News (5/20, story 4, 2:30, Sawyer) reported, “World renowned geneticist Craig Venter has been trying to unlock the mystery of life for 15 years.” Now, it appears his team at the J. Craig Venter Institute has made “a major breakthrough in the quest” to harness that phenomenon: They’ve “created life from nonliving parts.” That is, they developed “the first synthetic cell.” Explaining that “astonishing” feat, Dr. Venter said, “Instead of having a genetic relative that it evolved from, the parent of this cell is a computer.”
It is possible that one day, such cells “will make up designer organisms that can be programmed to do specific tasks like creating new biofuels or breaking down oil — which would come in handy about now,” CBS Evening News (5/20, story 3, 0:30, Couric) reported.
This week’s breakthrough stems from a step that was taken some three years ago, when Dr. Venter was able to show that “the natural DNA from one bacterium could be inserted into another and that it would take over the host cell’s operation,” the New York Times (5/21, A17, Wade) reports. In 2009, “his team synthesized a piece of DNA with 1,080,000 bases.” Now, according to the paper in Science, the team has found that the “synthetic DNA takes over a bacterial cell just as the natural DNA did, making the cell generate the proteins specified by the new DNA’s genetic information in preference to those of its own genome.”
In other words, the “donor genome reprogrammed the recipient cell, which went on to replicate and divide,” the Washington Post (5/21, Brown) reports. “The result was new colonies of Mycoplasma mycoides.” While Venter said the work “changes conceptually how I think about life,” other scientists, however, “characterize the experiment in less revolutionary terms,” pointing out that “only the genome was synthetic; the recipient cell was equipped by nature and billions of years of evolution to make sense of the genes it received and turn them on.” Still, “most scientists overwhelmingly praised the achievement,” the Los Angeles Times (5/21, Maugh, Roan) reports.
The Wall Street Journal (5/21, A1, Hotz), the AP (5/21), the USA Today (5/20, Winter) “On Deadline” blog, HealthDay (5/20, Mozes), Time (5/20, Park), the Christian Science Monitor (5/20, Spotts) and NPR (5/20, Palca) also covered the breakthrough. In addition, the story received extensive coverage overseas, with the Economist (5/20), and news outlets like AFP (5/20, Santini), the Financial Times (5/21, Cookson), the BBC News (5/20), the London Times (5/21, Henderson), and the UK’s Press Association (5/21), Guardian (5/20, Sample), Telegraph (5/20, Alleyne) and Daily Mail (5/21, Macrae) publishing lengthy articles on the subject.

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