Craig Venter’s Synthetic Genome: A Future Biosecurity Concern?

Colonies of the transformed Mycoplasma mycoides bacterium. Credit: J. Craig Venter Institute

J. Craig Venter of the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) in Rockville, MD announced last week that his team was able to successfully create a bacterial cell controlled by a chemically assembled, man-made genome. This breakthrough discovery in the emerging field of synthetic genomics raises some concern in the biosecurity community and prompted President Obama to call for “… a study of the implications of this scientific milestone, as well as other advances that may lie ahead in this field of research” at the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues held on Thursday, May 20, 2010.

The purpose of Venter’s research looked to create a functioning, man-made replication of a bacterium’s natural sequence. Using chemicals and genetic sequence information, Venter and his team reported the synthesis and assembly of the Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0 genome. After the new genome was transplanted into a recipient microbial relative, Mycoplasma capricolum, the bacterium demonstrated replication and protein production using the synthesized, transplanted DNA.

Previously, Venter’s team reported the creation of the first synthetic bacterial genome in 2008. In 2009, the same team was able to transfer genomes between bacterial cells. Now with the successful transplantation of an artificial genome, JCVI takes another historic step towards creating fully synthetic organism.

An early consensus from expert biologists claims that this breakthrough is still too premature and complex to present an emerging threat in biological weapons. However, observers and ethicists fear bioterrorists could misuse Venter’s methods in an attempt to create pathogenic agents by synthesizing their genomes. Although it is currently easier and cheaper to obtain pathogenic agents rather than manufacturing them, this accomplishment presents a new concern for biosecurity in the future. As security efforts increase to educate the public on potential security threats posed by synthetic biology, a possible dual use technology, Venter’s discovery prompts some bioethical and biosecurity concerns needing to be addressed by the biosecurity community.

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