In what some have characterized as the first step toward a "new industrial revolution," American scientists have created a synthetic genome -- resulting in the first man-made, self-reproducing, living cell.
The J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) has synthesized a genome from scratch in a laboratory and applied for patents on both the genome and the resulting organism. Dr. Venter, JCVI's chief executive officer, led the '90s-era race to map the human genome. This time around, his research team sequenced the genetic code of a bacterium (M. genitalium), and then used computer data and "four bottles of chemicals" to construct a copy from scratch. The new, synthetic genome M. mycoides -- dubbed "Synthia" by the watchdog organization ETC Group -- was then inserted into the cell of an existing bacterium. Subsequently, the host cell "booted up" with the Synthia genome and began producing Synthia's synthetic proteins, instead of its own.
Having partially funded JCVI's research, the U.S. government's Department of Energy holds "certain rights" to the Venter Institute's US Patent application no. 20070122826 and international patent application WIPO no. WO2007047148, the latter application seeking monopoly rights in more than 100 countries. JCVI has proposed using artificial life forms to devour greenhouse gases, create new chemicals and food ingredients, clean up water, and accelerate vaccine production. Venter insists that his team has participated in White House-level bioethical reviews, and is "being thoughtful" about the implications of their work.
But watchdog organizations warn of Synthia's potential dangers, including unintended biological consequences and military or terrorist misuse. The ETC Group has challenged JCVI's patent on ethical and public safety grounds, and also complains: “Venter’s enterprises are positioning themselves to be the Microsoft of synthetic biology.” ETC previously won a 13-year challenge to a Monsanto soybean patent. Nonetheless, their present challenge looks less promising, since JCVI's Synthia research was backed by such heavyweights as the U.S. government, BP, and Exxon Mobil.
Since Diamond v. Chakrabarty courts have restricted the ability to patent life forms, by excluding naturally-occurring organisms from such monopoly rights. Synthia presents a major game-changer; Venter's success may give biotech companies the means to circumvent these restrictions by simply creating synthetic versions of organisms. This could have far-reaching effects on Myriad, patent law, and our collective perceptions and definitions of "life."