Scientists Create First Synthetic Cell

A team of scientists has created what they say is the first synthetic cell. Although the achievement may pave the way to better ways to make biofuels and vaccine, for some it raises troubling moral questions.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

Now we'll hear about a team of scientists who say they reached a milestone on the path to creating artificial life forms. NPR's Joe Palca has the story.

JOE PALCA: Geneticist Craig Venter thinks big. He didn't hesitate to take on the federal government in the race to sequence the human genome. Now he's working on life itself. And yesterday at a news conference in Washington, he was able to claim an initial success.

Dr. CRAIG VENTER (Geneticist): We're here today to announce the first synthetic cell.

PALCA: The synthetic cell contains DNA Venter and his colleagues made in the laboratory. The lab-generated DNA has all the instructions for running the cell - a remarkable feat. By doing different things with that DNA, Venter predicts he'll be able to make cells that do useful things, such as speed up vaccine production.

Dr. VENTER: We think we can shorten that process quite substantially.

PALCA: And create new biofuels.

Dr. VENTER: We have a program with Exxon Mobile to try and develop new strains of algae that make normal gasoline and diesel fuel out of CO2.

PALCA: But Venter's approach is labor-intensive. Harvard University Geneticist George Church says Venter has achieved a milestone, but...

Dr. GEORGE CHURCH (Geneticist, Harvard): This is really the tool of one particular group. It's kind of out of the price range of everybody else.

PALCA: Church is working on a simpler way to modify cells to get them to do what he wants. Both Church and Venter are part of an emerging field of science called synthetic biology.

David Rejeski says it's not a field people know much about. He's director of the Science and Technology Innovation Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Rejeski says when he tells people about the work, they have many questions. Will this lead to bioweapons? Will there be environmental damage? Rejeski says scientists have not yet come up with a good way of explaining what they're doing and why the public should support it.

Dr. DAVID REJESKI (Director, Science and Technology Innovation Program, Woodrow Wilson Center): And so we leave it, essentially, to the mercy of the headlines and the people who are writing the headlines.

PALCA: Headlines like: "It's Alive," and "Life in a Test Tube" - headlines scientists certainly feel fail to describe accurately what they're doing.

Joe Palca, NPR News, Washington.

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