To the untrained eye, the tiny, misshapen, fatty blobs on Giovanni Murtas’s microscope slide would not look very impressive. But when the Italian scientist saw their telltale green fluorescent glint he knew he had achieved something remarkable – and taken a vital step towards building a living organism from scratch.The green glow was proof that his fragile creations were capable of making their own proteins, a crucial ability of all living things and vital for carrying out all other aspects of life.
Though only a first step, the discovery will hasten efforts by scientists to build the world’s first synthetic organism. It could also prove a significant development in the multibillion-dollar battle to exploit the technology for manufacturing commercially valuable chemicals such as drugs and biofuels or cleaning up pollution.
The achievement is a major advance for the new field of “synthetic biology”. Its proponents hope to construct simple bespoke organisms with carefully chosen components. But some campaigners worry about the new technology’s unsettling potential and argue there should be a moratorium on the research until the ethical and technological implications have been discussed more widely.
One of the field’s leading lights is the controversial scientist Craig Venter, a beach bum turned scientific entrepreneur who is better known for sequencing the human genome and scouring the oceans for unknown genes on his luxury research yacht. The research institute he founded hopes to create an artificial “minimal organism”. And he believes there is big money at stake.
In an interview with Newsweek magazine earlier this year, Dr Venter claimed that a fuel-producing microbe could become the first billion- or trillion-dollar organism. The institute has already patented a set of genes for creating such a stripped-down creature.