Single-cell research could open door to new life forms
December 10, 1999
Web posted at: 12:15 a.m. EST (0515 GMT)
From Reporter Jonathan Aiken
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Scientists are picking apart living
organisms as small as a single cell in hopes of understanding
exactly what genes are needed for the most basic life forms.
The result could be the invention of new creatures designed
to help, or hurt, humankind.
Research on the project has been taking place at the
Institute for Genetic Research outside Washington. Scientists
hoped that by identifying the purpose of each gene in single-
cell bacteria, they will, by process of elimination, be able
to determine which genes are essential for life.
"For this organism that contains just over 500 genes, we
would have a much better chance of understanding how all of
these genes work together to create a living cell," said
Claire Fraser, president of the Institute for Genetic
'Mystery' cells surprise scientists
Researchers discovered that out of 500 genes, about 350 were
absolutely essential for life.
Reporter Jonathan Aiken looks at the implications of ongoing research into single-cell genetics (November 9)
The surprise came when they discovered that 103 genes have a
function that is a complete mystery.
"We're missing at least a third of the picture," said Craig
Venter of the Institute for Genetic Research. "But that's
extremely disturbing ... these 103 genes, if you knock out
one of them, the cell dies," he said.
If scientists discover the purpose of the mystery genes,
experts think they will have a blueprint for the essence of
life on a molecular level.
Creating life from scratch
"The research is the first in a number of steps that could
potentially lead to breakthrough technology in creating a
minimal organism from scratch," said Mildred Cho of the
Stanford University Center for Biomedical Ethics.
Being able to create life "from scratch" could prompt ethical
problems. "It might be considered a Godlike activity," Cho
said. "But I think our group has concluded that manipulating
organisms has long been a part of human tradition."
The potential for man-made organisms could run the gamut from
frightening to amazing. Researchers have envisioned creating
life forms that could clean up oil spills, digest nuclear
waste, or in the wrong hands, become a weapon of war.
But so far, research on single-cell genetics has yielded only
theory and not much more. Project scientists said their work
is only a tiny step toward that future. But it could be a
step with profound implications for the future.
Scientists sequence first human chromosome - December 1, 1999
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