Monday, October 08, 2007

Artificial Life and Mixing Kinds

1) I am creating artificial life, declares US gene pioneer

THE GUARDIAN [Guardian Media Group, UK] - Ed Pilkington in New York - October 6, 2007

Craig Venter, the controversial DNA researcher involved in the race to decipher the human genetic code, has built a synthetic chromosome out of laboratory chemicals and is poised to announce the creation of the first new artificial life form on Earth.

The announcement, which is expected within weeks and could come as early as Monday at the annual meeting of his scientific institute in San Diego, California, will herald a giant leap forward in the development of designer genomes. It is certain to provoke heated debate about the ethics of creating new species and could unlock the door to new energy sources and techniques to combat global warming.

Mr Venter told the Guardian he thought this landmark would be "a very important philosophical step in the history of our species. We are going from reading our genetic code to the ability to write it. That gives us the hypothetical ability to do things never contemplated before".

The Guardian can reveal that a team of 20 top scientists assembled by Mr Venter, led by the Nobel laureate Hamilton Smith, has already constructed a synthetic chromosome, a feat of virtuoso bio-engineering never previously achieved. Using lab-made chemicals, they have painstakingly stitched together a chromosome that is 381 genes long and contains 580,000 base pairs of genetic code.

The DNA sequence is based on the bacterium Mycoplasma genitalium which the team pared down to the bare essentials needed to support life, removing a fifth of its genetic make-up. The wholly synthetically reconstructed chromosome, which the team have christened Mycoplasma laboratorium, has been watermarked with inks for easy recognition.

It is then transplanted into a living bacterial cell and in the final stage of the process it is expected to take control of the cell and in effect become a new life form. The team of scientists has already successfully transplanted the genome of one type of bacterium into the cell of another, effectively changing the cell's species. Mr Venter said he was "100% confident" the same technique would work for the artificially created chromosome.

The new life form will depend for its ability to replicate itself and metabolise on the molecular machinery of the cell into which it has been injected, and in that sense it will not be a wholly synthetic life form. However, its DNA will be artificial, and it is the DNA that controls the cell and is credited with being the building block of life.

Mr Venter said he had carried out an ethical review before completing the experiment. "We feel that this is good science," he said. He has further heightened the controversy surrounding his potential breakthrough by applying for a patent for the synthetic bacterium.

Pat Mooney, director of a Canadian bioethics organisation, ETC group, said the move was an enormous challenge to society to debate the risks involved. "Governments, and society in general, is way behind the ball. This is a wake-up call - what does it mean to create new life forms in a test-tube?"

He said Mr Venter was creating a "chassis on which you could build almost anything. It could be a contribution to humanity such as new drugs or a huge threat to humanity such as bio-weapons".

Mr Venter believes designer genomes have enormous positive potential if properly regulated. In the long-term, he hopes they could lead to alternative energy sources previously unthinkable. Bacteria could be created, he speculates, that could help mop up excessive carbon dioxide, thus contributing to the solution to global warming, or produce fuels such as butane or propane made entirely from sugar.

"We are not afraid to take on things that are important just because they stimulate thinking," he said. "We are dealing in big ideas. We are trying to create a new value system for life. When dealing at this scale, you can't expect everybody to be happy."

2) Artificial Life Likely in 3 to 10 Years

ASSOCIATED PRESS - By Seth Borenstein - August 19, 2007

WASHINGTON - Around the world, a handful of scientists are trying to create life from scratch and they're getting closer.

Experts expect an announcement within three to 10 years from someone in the now little- known field of "wet artificial life."

"It's going to be a big deal and everybody's going to know about it," said Mark Bedau, chief operating officer of ProtoLife of Venice, Italy, one of those in the race. "We're talking about a technology that could change our world in pretty fundamental ways-in fact, in ways that are impossible to predict."

That first cell of synthetic life-made from the basic chemicals in DNA-may not seem like much to non-scientists. For one thing, you'll have to look in a microscope to see it.

"Creating protocells has the potential to shed new light on our place in the universe," Bedau said. "This will remove one of the few fundamental mysteries about creation in the universe and our role."

And several scientists believe man-made life forms will one day offer the potential for solving a variety of problems, from fighting diseases to locking up greenhouse gases to eating toxic waste.

Bedau figures there are three major hurdles to creating synthetic life:

-A container, or membrane, for the cell to keep bad molecules out, allow good ones, and the ability to multiply.

-A genetic system that controls the functions of the cell, enabling it to reproduce and mutate in response to environmental changes.

-A metabolism that extracts raw materials from the environment as food and then changes it into energy.

One of the leaders in the field, Jack Szostak at Harvard Medical School, predicts that within the next six months, scientists will report evidence that the first step-creating a cell membrane-is "not a big problem." Scientists are using fatty acids in that effort.

Szostak is also optimistic about the next step- getting nucleotides, the building blocks of DNA, to form a working genetic system.

His idea is that once the container is made, if scientists add nucleotides in the right proportions, then Darwinian evolution could simply take over.

"We aren't smart enough to design things, we just let evolution do the hard work and then we figure out what happened," Szostak said.

In Gainesville, Fla., Steve Benner, a biological chemist at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution is attacking that problem by going outside of natural genetics. Normal DNA consists of four bases-adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine (known as A,C,G,T)- molecules that spell out the genetic code in pairs. Benner is trying to add eight new bases to the genetic alphabet.

Bedau said there are legitimate worries about creating life that could "run amok," but there are ways of addressing it, and it will be a very long time before that is a problem.

"When these things are created, they're going to be so weak, it'll be a huge achievement if you can keep them alive for an hour in the lab," he said. "But them getting out and taking over, never in our imagination could this happen."

3) Go-ahead for hybrid embryo research praised
Scientists and patient groups have welcomed a decision by the fertility regulator to allow scientists to create part-human, part-animal embryos

LONDON DAILY TELEGRAPH [Barclay] - By Nic Fleming - September 6, 2007

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) ruled that research using cytoplasmic hybrids - made using eggs from rabbits or cows that have had their nucleus replaced with human genetic code - should be permitted.

British scientists want to use the technique to create embryonic stem cells so they can study the causes of and develop treatments for diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, cystic fibrosis, motor neurone disease and Huntington's.

The HFEA was due to rule on the research applications in January but instead announced a public consultation which found 61 per cent of the public in favour of the research.

Dr Belinda Cupid, of the Motor Neurone Disease Association, said: "This position by the HFEA is very encouraging. There is currently no cure for MND, but allowing the use of hybrid and chimera embryos in scientific research may revolutionise the future treatment of this disease and other degenerative neurological conditions. - - -

Yesterday's announcement means such work will "in principle" be permitted. However, each proposal will be examined individually and decisions on the applications already submitted are expected in November.

In a statement, the HFEA said: "Having looked at all the evidence the authority has decided that there is no fundamental reason to prevent cytoplasmic hybrid research."

The decision is controversial because current laws only give the HFEA powers to regulate research involving human embryos, except for the use of the so-called "hamster test" - the fertilisation of a hamster egg to test the viability of human sperm.

In May the Government published its draft Human Tissue and Embryos Bill, which proposed allowing the creation of cybrids, but retaining the ban on "true hybrids", in which the sperm from one species fertilises an egg from another. - - - -

4) Hybrid embryos could be created within months

THE EVENING STANDARD of LONDON [DMGT] - September 5, 2007

Hybrid embryos containing both human and animal material could be created in British laboratories within months.

The controversial research was given a green light yesterday by the UK's fertility regulator.

A shortage of human eggs led scientists to seek permission to make hybrid embryos from human skin cells and animal eggs such as those from cows, which are plentiful in slaughterhouses.

Two teams of scientists are poised to start making cow-human hybrids for research into incurable diseases, with at least one project expected to start by the end of the year.

Stem cell expert Dr Stephen Minger, who wants to use the embryos to study conditions such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and motor neurone disease, said the work could "revolutionise drug discovery".

But the decision by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority is likely to be subject to a High Court challenge, with opponents claiming the watchdog is not entitled to rule on the issue.

Josephine Quintavalle, of the campaign group Comment on Reproductive Ethics, said last night: "There is a sense from some people that scientists should never be stopped in their tracks.

"Reproduction with animals has been taboo since the beginning of recorded time and that taboo has remained with us for a reason.

"This is tampering at a very basic level."

Britain is one of the first Western countries to approve such research.

The creation of hybrid embryos is banned in Australia and many European countries but experiments have been carried out in the Far East and the research is allowed in Canada.

The process involves removing the genetic material from the animal egg and replacing it with human DNA.

After being kick-started by an electric current, the egg would develop into an embryo from which stem cells - the body's master cells - can be harvested.

Such cells would be made available to scientists around the world to study the causes of disease and develop potential treatments.

The embryos, known as cytoplasmic, would be more than 99 per cent human.

They would have to be destroyed after 14 days and could not be implanted into women.

Scientists' hopes of using such hybrids were initially jeopardised by plans to outlaw such research under a shake-up of the ageing fertility laws.

But in May, Ministers dramatically changed their minds, with a draft bill approving the creation of hybrids for research into serious diseases as long as it is carried out by scientists licensed by the HFEA.

Yesterday, the HFEA, which is being asked to rule on two applications by scientists before the new law comes into force, approved the creation of hybrids in principle.

The final go-ahead on applications from researchers at King's College, London, and the North East Stem Cell Institute in Newcastle will rest with the authority's licence committee, due to meet in November.

Should it approve the applications, the research in Newcastle is likely to start almost immediately, while the London scientists hope to conduct their first experiments next summer.

The highly complex and labour-intensive nature of the process means that thousands of cow eggs could be used over many months to create just one hybrid embryo.

Critics say there is little evidence such intricate work will yield results and vehemently oppose the destruction of embryos that will be an inevitable part of the experiments.

Comment on Reproductive Ethics is considering a legal challenge based on the belief that the wording of current fertility laws does not give the HFEA the right to rule on the issue.

Anthony Ozimic, of the Society for Unborn Children, said there were 'grave ethical and moral objections' to the research.

"All the evidence suggests these embryos are essentially human," he said. "Yet, they will be cannibalised and killed for their stem cells.

"Patients with degenerative diseases are being exploited.

"They and their families are being sold lies and false hope by the profit-hungry biotech industry."

But Dr Minger, of King's College London, says the work is an essential part of the quest to find new drugs and therapies for devastating illnesses.

He said: "Our techniques could be also be used for various forms of cancer, for cystic fibrosis, for muscular dystrophy.

"If I was someone with Alzheimer's disease, I would say: 'What are they worrying about?'.

"The research is going to be tightly regulated by the HFEA. No cows are going to be killed, the cell lines are only going to be used for research and the embryos aren't going to be implanted."

Dr Belinda Cupid, of the Motor Neurone Disease Association, said: "There is currently no cure for motor neurone disease but allowing the use of hybrid embryos in research may revolutionise future treatment of the disease and other degenerative neurological conditions.

"The case for the use of human-animal hybrid embryos in stem cell research is compelling as it holds the potential to save lives."

The HFEA says a consultation showed the public were "at ease" with the idea when told it could pave the way for therapies for conditions such as Alzheimer's.

Although the embryos are sometimes called chimeras, after the monstrous creatures in Greek mythology, they are technically hybrids.

Chimeras contain two types of cell - one from each "parent" - while the hybrids have only one, in which the genetic material is mixed.

5) Scientists' plea to use new hybrid embryos

THE OBSERVER [Guardian Media Group, UK] - By Jo Revill - August 26, 2007

Britain's leading scientists have made a final plea for the right to create the first animal- human embryos for medical research using eggs taken from dead cows.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority will announce its decision next week on whether to give permission to UK laboratories to create the hybrid embryos to advance the understanding of genetic diseases.

The issue is controversial because it involves scientists taking an animal egg, removing its genetic material and putting DNA from a human cell into it. This can be used to create lines of stem cells which can then be made part of studies into incurable genetic diseases such as motor neurone disease.

However, it has caused controversy as some campaigners and religious groups argue that it is unethical to mix human and animal cells in this way.

Dr Stephen Minger has applied for a licence to do work using hybrids, in order to understand more about a range of neurological diseases, including Alzheimer's disease and motor neurone disease. - - -

To do this work they would need a large number of embryos to make stem cells, far more than could be achieved by asking women to donate their eggs for research. Stem cells are immature cells that can be engineered to develop into many different kinds of tissue, which is important for medical research. - - -

'To me, it seems just very practical to use the cows' eggs, as a by-product of a process [the animals' slaughter] that is already happening.' Another scientist, Professor Robin Lovell- Badge, head of genetics at the National Institute of Medical Research in London, said: 'I can see absolutely no reason why these sorts of experiments shouldn't proceed. I think the scientists wishing to carry them out have made a very clear case for them.'

The government recently shifted its position on animal-human hybrid embryos: having been initially against the concept, it is now proposing to allow partial hybrids, where a complete set of human genes is inserted into an animal's egg cell, for research purposes only, through a new Human Tissue and Embryo Bill aimed at overhauling the laws surrounding fertility treatment. - - - -

6) Clinics to grow human eggs

LONDON DAILY TELEGRAPH [Barclay] - By Rebecca Smith, Medical Editor - September 23, 2007

A major advance in fertility treatment is signalled today as doctors unveil details of a technique that will allow human eggs to be grown in the laboratory from ovarian tissue samples.

The procedure, which is being pioneered by two British fertility clinics, involves taking a piece of ovary tissue from a woman and "banking" it in a laboratory until she is ready to start a family.

It would allow career women, or those waiting to meet the right partner, to delay motherhood for years.

It could also eliminate many of the health risks associated with IVF treatment. It is expected to be offered to patients within five years. - - -

Nuala Scarisbrick, a trustee of the pro-life charity Life, said: "Children should not be manufactured by people in laboratories.

"This is a deliberate attempt to have nothing to do with nature."

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