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Single-cell research could open door to new life forms

December 10, 1999
Web posted at: 12:15 a.m. EST (0515 GMT)

In this story:

'Mystery' cells surprise scientists

Creating life from scratch


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 Research.

'Mystery' cells surprise scientists

Researchers discovered that out of 500 genes, about 350 were absolutely essential for life.

VideoReporter Jonathan Aiken looks at the implications of ongoing research into single-cell genetics (November 9)
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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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