Scientists create first synthetic cell

LOS ANGELES Inside the walls of the Genetics Research Center at UCLA, various experiments involving DNA manipulation are taking place.

Researchers replaced a gene in zebrafish embryos to find out how it expresses itself when exposed to diabetes. Some of the vials contained a mixture of salmon and human DNA cells. But the big buzz in the research community is how Maryland researchers completely rewired one cell with the DNA of another.

"It is definitely a first step and it is an important first step," said Dr. Ed McCabe, co-director of UCLA's Center for Society and Genetics.

Dr. McCabe says this is the first step to unlocking the mystery of life.

Genome-mapping pioneer J. Craig Venter replaced the entire chromosome of one bacteria with that of another. Those cells rebooted themselves and replicated. While it's still a far cry from the ultimate goal of creating cells completely from scratch, the thought is manmade DNA can be engineered to do things Mother Nature never intended.

"It is science fiction that is moving toward reality," said Dr. McCabe.

In a book Dr. McCabe addresses the peril of messing with Mother Nature. Could scientist unleash a superbug or cause ecological damage? Experts agree that all of these questions need to be addressed.

"We have to recognize that we need to move science forward," said Dr. McCabe. "We need to always be discussing the tensions between good uses and evil uses of that technology.

With this kind of science, some people raise the concern about the potential to use synthetic DNA to create bioweapons. But the scientist behind the breakthrough dismisses those concerns explaining that his team are the only ones who know how to manipulate DNA in this way.

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