American geneticists announced last week that they may be close to finding the minimum number of genes necessary for an organism to survive and reproduce. Reporting in the journal Science, the researchers involved in the 2-year Minimal Genome Project intend to remove all the original DNA from a single-celled organism and then inject into it what they believe to be the minimum genetic information for life. They then hope to watch the cell survive and copy itself. The organism they have been working with is a microbe called Mycoplasma genitalium which has the smallest number of genes of any known organism - 517. Clyde Hutchinson, Scott Peterson and six colleagues at the Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR) in Maryland, have been altering genes in the microbe to make them useless. It appears that at the very least, between 250 and 350 genes are needed. They insist that they will not be creating life so much as radically altering an existing form. Dr Peterson said: 'One can draw this up as a Frankenstein kind of thing but in fact it is very much using current technologies and methodologies.' Earlier in the year, Craig Venter, at whose institute the research has been conducted, announced the plan to create simple life forms. He put the proposal to the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania and other groups asking them to isolate the crucial ethical, philosophical and religious questions such work would raise. In last week's Science, the researchers write that 'Too often, concern about playing God has become a way of forestalling rather than fostering discussion about morally responsible manipulation of life.' They add: 'The temptation to demonise this fundamental research may be irresistible. But the only reason for ethics to lag behind this line of research is if we choose to allow it to do so.' An accompanying Science report by an ethics panel made up of 25 members which TIGR commissioned through an unrestricted grant found that the creation of new life forms 'does not violate any fundamental moral precepts or boundaries, but does raise questions that are essential to consider before the technology advances further.'
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Genetic find could lead to creation of life from scratch in lab