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How will human life change once we
have the ability to create artificial life?

A controversial scientist who led a private project to sequence the human genome has claimed that artificial life will be created within four months. Researcher Craig Venter said his team had cleared a critical hurdle to creating man-made organisms in a laboratory.

“Assuming we don’t make any errors, I think it should work and we should have the first synthetic species by the end of the year,” he said.

Venter, who has been chasing his goal for a decade, is already working on projects to use synthetic biology to create bacteria that transform coal into cleaner natural gas, and algae that soak up carbon dioxide and turn it into hydrocarbon fuels.

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Venter’s prediction came after scientists at his J Craig Venter Institute, in Rockville, Maryland, announced that they had developed a new method of transplanting DNA into bacteria, promising to solve a problem that has held up the artificial life project for two years.

The team took the first step in 2007 by implanting the genome of a bacterium, Mycoplasma mycoides, into cells belonging to a close relative, Mycoplasma capricolum. This transformed the host bacteria into Mycoplasma mycoides, Times Online reported.

Last January the team built a bacterium’s entire genetic code from scratch. The next step was to transfer this synthetic genome into a host cell, using the 2007 transplant technique, to “reboot” it with genetic instructions written by humans. This has failed so far because the synthetic genome will not work when it is transplanted into host cells.

The new research has identified the reason for this failure and developed a new approach to address it. Bacterial genomes are chemically modified by a process called methylation. When they are inserted into other cells this process protects them against chemical called restriction enzymes, which defend against viruses.

The synthetic genome, however, is not methylated, as it has to be grown in yeast, thus leaving it open to attack by the restriction enzymes.

In the new study, the Venter team remethylated the M mycoides genome before placing it into the host cell. This time the transplants worked and the cells were rebooted as M mycoides. The success suggests that methylating the synthetic genome before transfer should allow it to take over host cells and reboot them with its DNA.

Via The Times