Synthetic bacteria cell ‘not life’, says Vatican

VATICAN CITY, May 21, (Agencies): The Vatican’s newspaper on Friday praised the development of the first synthetic self-replicating bacteria cell, but said the discovery did not amount to the creation of life.
“It is a high-level work of genetic engineering, a step beyond the replacement of DNA parts. In truth however, it is not the creation of life, but the replacement of one of its motors” L’Osservatore Romano said.
The daily published the news of the discovery on page one, entrusting the Vatican’s first comment on the matter to neonatal doctor and bioethicist Carlo Bellieni.
Scientists in the United States say they developed the cell by constructing a bacterium’s “genetic software” and then transplanting it into a host cell.
“Proclamations and newspaper titles aside, the result obtained is interesting and it might find applications, but it needs to have rules, like anything that touches the heart of life,” L’Osservatore Romano said.
While praising the merits of genetic engineering, the daily also warned that any manipulation of genome needs to be carried out with great caution, concluding that “DNA is an excellent motor, but it is not life.”
Senior Italian Roman Catholic bishops expressed concern Friday at the creation of the first synthetic living cell which they said could be a “devastating” move.
“In the wrong hands, today’s novelty could lead to a devastating step into the unknown tomorrow,” said Bishop Domenico Mogavero, head of the legal affairs commission for the Italian Episcopal Conference, in an interview with La Stampa daily.
“Man comes to God, but he is not God: he remains human and he has the possibility to give life through procreation, not through constructing it artificially,” he added.
Lead US researcher Craig Venter said when announcing the development on Thursday that the method could be used to design bacteria specifically to help produce biofuels or to clean up environmental hazards.
“We call it synthetic because the cell is totally derived from a synthetic chromosome, made with four bottles of chemicals on a chemical synthesizer, starting with information in a computer,” he said.
Catholic religious leaders have expressed fears however that scientists are “playing God”.
“It is human nature which gives its dignity to the human genome, not the inverse. The nightmare to be fought is the manipulation of life,” said Mogavero.
Bruno Forte, archbishop of Chieti-Vasto in central Italy and a theologian, said: “The worry can be resumed in one question — is what is scientifically possible also just from an ethical point of view?”
He added in comments to Corriere della Sera that he admired modern research and that the Church was not “fundamentally” opposed to it but was carefully monitoringt.
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi told the ANSA news agency late Thursday that more detail on the discovery was needed. “There have already been similar announcements which after a while have been changed.”
Maryland genome-mapping pioneer J. Craig Venter said his team’s project paves the way for the ultimate, much harder goal: designing organisms that work differently from the way nature intended for a wide range of uses. Already he’s working with ExxonMobil in hopes of turning algae into fuel.
And the report, being published Friday in the journal Science, is triggering excitement in this growing field of synthetic biology.
“It’s been a long time coming, and it was worth the wait,” said Dr George Church, a Harvard Medical School genetics professor. “It’s a milestone that has potential practical applications.”
The project has overcome some hurdles in engineering larger genomes that will help push forward the field, said biological engineer Dr. Ron Weiss, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology leader in synthetic biology.
“It’s an important step,” said Weiss. Even though the manmade DNA needed an already living cell to start working, eventually it reproduced and “all elements in the cells after some amount of time can be traced to this initial artificial DNA. That’s a great accomplishment.”
Scientists for years have moved single genes and even large chunks of DNA from one species to another. Venter aimed to go further. A few years ago, his team transplanted an entire natural genome, all of an organism’s genes, one bacterium into another and watched it take over — turning a goat germ into a cattle germ.
Next, the researchers built from scratch another, smaller bacterium’s genome, using off-the-shelf laboratory-made DNA fragments.
Friday’s report combines those two achievements to test a big question: Could synthetic DNA really take over and drive a living cell? Somehow, it did.
“This is transforming life totally from one+ species into another by changing the software,” said Venter, using a computer analogy to explain the DNA’s role.
The researchers picked two species of Mycoplasma, simple germs that contain a single chromosome and lack the cell walls that form barriers in other bacteria. First, they chemically synthesized the genome of M. mycoides, that goat germ, twice as large as the germ genome they’d previously built.

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