Hearing on synthetic life to examine breakthrough

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - When Craig Venter was about to announce his latest step toward making synthetic life, he laid his groundwork carefully.

A scanning electron micrographs of M. mycoides JCVI-syn1 courtesy of the J. Craig Venter Institute. REUTERS/J. Craig Venter Institute/Handout

He briefed White House staffers. He explained what he was going to announce to members of Congress and their staff. And he had worked all along with the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.

“We asked for an ethical review before we did the first experiment,” Venter said in a telephone interview.

Venter is accustomed to making headlines and he is also familiar with the hyperbole that often accompanies his scientific announcements. So when he testifies Thursday to the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce, there will not be any surprises.

“Nobody likes to be surprised with major things like this,” Venter said in a telephone interview. “We are trying to make extra efforts to make sure there is intelligent dialogue and make sure people have facts to work from.’

Last week, Venter and colleagues at his J. Craig Venter Institute announced that they had used an artificially synthesized genome to bring back to life a bacterium that had its own genetic material scooped out.

While it is not quite synthetic life, it was enough to worry some environmentalists. “We must ensure that strong regulations are in place to protect the environment and human health from this potentially dangerous new technology,” said Eric Hoffman of Friends of the Earth.

Venter has been working for years toward the goal of making a completely synthetic organism from scratch.

Bit by bit his team has learned how to make an artificial chromosome, the genetic material a cell needs to live and function.

“We can now begin working on our ultimate objective of synthesizing a minimal cell containing only the genes necessary to sustain life in its simplest form,” Venter’s colleague Daniel Gibson said last week.


Venter hopes to use the technology to make new and better vaccines, to create organisms that will pump out jet fuel, and to make “cars that can run on garbage”. Bacteria have been found in nature that thrive on oil and radiation -- Venter hopes to refine their genetic sequences to customize such properties.

The findings are published in the journal Science for other researchers to examine, criticize and try to replicate, which is the way science is done. But U.S. Representative Henry Waxman’s science-friendly committee is also going to get a little piece of the action.

Venter himself will testify, of course.

The committee will also hear from Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the U.S. National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Fauci, who has been at the National Institutes of Health since 1968, will be able to speak about Venter’s collaboration with NIH to try to make a universal flu vaccine in just days using an artificial genetic sequence.

Jay Keasling of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California will also testify. Keasling directs the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center at the University of California Berkeley, where scientists are working to engineer microbes that can eat pollutants.

Drew Endy of Stanford University in California also works to make synthetic organisms. He is on the record about using synthetic biology to revolutionize agriculture and has been widely and colorfully quoted about genetically engineering a gourd that could grow into a house.

Rounding out the testimony will be Gregory Kaebnick of the Hastings Center, a nonpartisan bioethics think-tank. he has been working on a project with Venter’s institute to examine the philosophical issues of trying to create synthetic life.

Editing by Julie Steenhuysen