Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

It’s Life, But Not As We Know It

By Simon Grose

The creation of the first synthetic genome is the latest paragraph in the story of evolution.

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The evolution of life on Earth is a fantastic story shaped by a multitude of random forces, from occasional massive meteor impacts to countless miniscule mutations. Craig Venter and his team at Synthetic Genomics are not the first non-random force to attempt to shape this story, but definitely the most ambitious.

Their success in creating a synthetic copy of the genome of a bacterium and implanting it into a different bacterium, which then multiplied to produce proteins typically generated by the copied bacterium, was driven by obsessive intent. Over 5 years the project has cost upwards of US$30 million and yielded at least 13 patent applications. Nothing random about that.

Some of the money came from Exxon Mobil. They see synthetic biology as a potential pathway to create artificial strains of algae that are optimised to ingest carbon dioxide and provide feedstock for biofuels.

To see this “artificial life” in context, compare it to a project that has won around $600,000 from the Indo-Australian Biotechnology Fund. Researchers from Monash University and the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai will collaborate to compare gene expression maps of four strains of cyanobacteria, commonly known as blue-green algae. The aim is to identify genes that control carbon absorption, with the ultimate goal of loading those genes into existing strains to...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

Simon Grose is a Director of Science Media (