Dr Craig Venter, the man who led the private sector effort to sequence the human genome, has been working for years to create a man-made organism. But constructing a primitive microbe from a kit of genes is a daunting task. Dr Venter says, eventually, these life forms could be designed to make biofuels and absorb greenhouse gases. The publication of the patent application has angered some environmentalists.
The J Craig Venter Institute’s US patent application claims exclusive ownership of a set of essential genes and a synthetic “free-living organism that can grow and replicate” made using those genes. Dr Venter’s team intends to construct an organism with a “minimal genome” that can then be inserted into the shell of a bacterium. By removing genes, one by one, from a bacterium called Mycoplasma genitalium they identified the minimum number of genes required for this particular organism to replicate, or reproduce, in its controlled environment. They have been able to remove 101 of its 482 genes without killing the bacterium, meaning that 381 were required for replication. But generating a man-made living organism from the bottom up requires much more than just its minimal genome. For example, in order to get the genes to do something, there have to be chemicals to translate the genes into messenger RNA and proteins.