Craig Venter has never been one to mince words or shy away from a challenge: after beating government scientists to the punch by mapping the human genome first in 2000 using his innovative shotgun sequencing technique, he embarked on a new mission to travel around the world and discover thousands of new bacteria and proteins aboard his research vessel, Sorcerer II. He hopes to parlay his findings from that trip into his grand new project: synthesizing a new breed of microbes from scratch that could produce biofuels or reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
It now seems as though his zeal in moving forward with his plan has landed him in a bit of hot water. A recently unearthed patent application filed by the J Craig Venter Institute that would claim exclusive ownership of a set of genes and a synthetic "free-living organism that can grow and replicate" created using those genes has infuriated some environmentalists who argue it goes against public safety and morality. The Canada-based environmental group Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (or ETC) has called on patent offices to reject all applications on synthetic organisms. "We don't want to engage in a long-term legal strategy to slap down bad patents. These patents must be struck down before they're issued," said Hope Shand, a spokesperson for the group. Jin Thomas, another member of the group, added, "These monopoly claims signal the start of a high-stakes commercial race to synthesise and privatise synthetic life forms."
As the science journalist Carl Zimmer wrote in a recent posting on his blog The Loom, this patent application seemed to mark an important "turning point" as, "In the past, scientists have patented genetically modified organisms and individual genes. But now Venter is patenting an entire synthetic organism."
Indeed, Zimmer notes that by trying to lock down as many patents as he can, Venter is adopting a decidedly different approach to synthetic biology than have many of his colleagues in the field, one analogous to Microsoft in which he would control "operating system for anyone who wants to build an organism from scratch."
As laid out in the application, Venter and his team aim to build an organism with a "minimal genome" that could be inserted into the shell of a bacterium. They identified the minimum number of genes required for such an organism to replicate by gradually incapacitating individual genes (by inducing mutations) in Mycoplasma genitalium, a microbe that was already known to have 482 genes. Out of the 482 genes originally present in the microbe, they discovered that only 381 were essential to its survival.
"As the application explains, it would be theoretically possible to synthesize a 381-gene genome and plug it into a genome-free cell, and--voila--boot up a new organism. This artificial genome could be engineered so that it can easily accept other genes to carry out new functions--such as producing cheap hydrogen fuel," explains Zimmer.
Venter defends his institute's decision to apply for the patent on the grounds that his new technology would help create "designer microbes" that could pump out a limitless supply of biofuels, such as ethanol and hydrogen, and absorb harmful greenhouse gases.
What are your thoughts on this potentially groundbreaking, yet equally disturbing, new science? Is this just the preliminary step to creating something bigger or a self-contained experiment?
See also: ::Metagenomics: Met-a-what?, ::Will Custom-Made Microbes Help Power the Future?, ::You Got Bacteria in My Gas: Engineering Microbes to Make Hydrocarbons, ::Green Tech Will Spawn the Next Google Says Sun's Co-Founder