In the latest issue of "Chemistry World" is a report describing "the first synthetic cell". What has in fact been done is to insert a chemically synthesised genome into a bacterial cell. The M.mycoides genome contains over a million letters of genetic code and current DNA-technology can string-together perhaps a few thousand units in one go. The team led by Dan Gibson and Craig Venter have exploited the ability of yeast to join together small pieces of DNA using enzymes.
Grown in a Petri-dish the synthetic bacterium looks almost identical to the natural version and can similarly self-replicate. For the development of tailor-made life, it is necessary to understand what each gene codes for. The longer-run might be that genomes could be designed, but achieving that is some way off. It is more probable that a simple artificial genome could be created that has the essential properties of a living organism.
This could permit other gene-circuits being introduced for example to produce biofuels or fine-chemicals. Dr Venter's company, Synthetic Genomics, intends to use the cell synthesis technology to produce modified algae cells from which to make biofuel. The aim is to make a complete algal genome from which "superproductive organisms" could be derived.
It is possible that the designer method can overcome some of the drawbacks involved with making fuel from algae, namely robustness and competitiveness of particular strains over other organisms, enhanced growth rate and yields of algal oil. The method might be the key to the widescale production of fuel from algae, which is thought to be the better option over making it from land-based crops such as soya and corn, since the yields are much greater and there is no competition with food-crop production, and provide a real alternative to a globalised world that is utterly dependent on supplies of imported crude oil.
Algae also offer the potential of aiding in the curbing of CO2 emissions from power stations and cement factories, and in cleaning nitrates and phosphates from agricultural runoff water and effluent from sewage plants, while simultaneously furnishing useful fuels such as biodiesel and ethanol according to how the algae are processed.
"The first synthetic cell,"By Hayley Birch, Chemistry World, July 2010, 29.