Craig Venter, the controversial DNA researcher involved in the race to decipher the human genetic code, has built an entirely synthetic chromosome, a sequence of genes, and plans to implant it in an existing cell.
If Venter and his team get their way, they will be credited with the breakthrough of creating an almost entirely new life form for the first time.
Researchers hope that the discovery will lead to developments
in bioengineering to help deal with climate change, or provide alternative energy sources.
Venter said that creating the new life form would be "a very important philosophical step in the history of our species".
"We are going from reading our genetic code to the ability to write it. That gives us the hypothetical ability to do things never contemplated before," the Guardian quoted him, as saying.
For the research, Venter assembled a team of 20 top scientists, who constructed a synthetic chromosome, known as Mycoplasma laboratorium that is 381 genes long and contains 580,000 base pairs of genetic code.
Venter said that in the final step of the process, the chromosome will be transplanted into a living cell where it should "take control", effectively becoming a new life form.
The team of scientists has already successfully transplanted the genome of one type of bacterium into the cell of another, effectively changing the cell’s species. Venter said that he was "100 per cent confident" the same technique would work for the artificially created chromosome.
He further said that the new life form would depend for its ability to replicate itself and metabolise on the molecular machinery of the cell into which it has been injected, and in that sense it will not be a wholly synthetic life form.
Pat Mooney, director of the Canadian bioethics organisation ETC Group, told the paper that Venter was creating "a chassis on which you could build almost anything".
"It could be a contribution to humanity such as new drugs or a huge threat to humanity such as bio-weapons," Mooney said.