The researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute have managed to transplant the genome from one bacterium into another. Basically, they made some modifications to the genome of Mycoplasma mycoides to make it resistant to an anitbiotic, purified the DNA (stripped it of proteins) and added it to cells of the related species Mycoplasma capricolum. They applied the antibiotic to the culture and over time, the cells with the M. capricolum genome died out and those with the modified M. mycoides continued to divide and produced the proteins of M. mycoides, essentially turning the M. capricolum into M. mycoides.
So what’s the significance of this? This is the first instance of converting one species into another by means of genome transplanting and it serves as an important proof of concept for the Venter Institute’s much more ambitious project of creating synthetic life.
Synthetic life will no doubt raise its fair share of controversy. If the use of discarded in vitro for research that could potentially cure diseases and save lives can prompt the President of the United States to veto any bill funding it, I can’t imagine what religious conservatives will think of scientists’ attempts to “play God”.
I personally think it’s a very interesting field, but it should be treated with heavy consideration, because this is unexplored terrain. The effect that synthetic organisms would have if released into the wild is unknown and could potentially be disastrous. While I’m sure those at the Venter Institute have put a great deal more thought into this problem than I have, I think that (rational) public scrutiny should be practiced.
It will also be interesting to see what the Discovery Institute thinks of this research. Given their religious leanings, I suspect most of them will be none to pleased with it, while at the same time they use it to proclaim “evidence” for their thus far evidentially-lacking Intelligent Design “theory”.