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A Step Closer to Designing New Organisms Friday, July 6, 2007

Posted by Henry in evolution, gene flow, genetic engineering, genetics, genome, horizontal gene transfer, moral issues, organisms, science, science experiment.

Can humans one day achieve the unthinkable of “playing god” in designing and making new organisms to solve problems?

In this fascinating article, it is reported that scientists have been able to transfer an entire genome – not just a few genes – from one microbe to another, thus making the latter like the original donor.

It is known that in nature individual gene transfers occur. This takes in the forms of gene flow and horizontal gene transfer. The former is the mechanism of exchange of genes between populations, usually between the same species; and the latter is the process of transfer of genes between organisms that do not have hereditary relationship.

It follows that in genetic engineering, genes are transferred so that organisms can develop desired traits:

So, for example, a gene that promotes the production of insulin might be added to a microbe that scientists want to turn into a cellular factory of the diabetes medication.

But according to the article, scientists have successfully transferred an entire genome – rather 500 genes – from one organism to another. The big-picture implication of this powerful method is that it brings us a step closer to be able engineer our own organisms to solve problems:

As radical as this transformation is—transmuting one species into another by transferring just the genetic code—it represents only the first step toward man-made organisms.

What’s more, with this technique we need not to evolve organisms artificially as they are then “locked in”:

The goal is ultimately to design new organisms that fulfill specified functions, such as manufacturing new fuels to replace oil and gas or capturing carbon dioxide, without evolving so that these capabilities are locked in over time.

Of course, as you read through the article, you will realise that there are limitations and we are still at the very early stage. However this is quite exciting and truly fascinating.

Needless to say there will be even more passionate moral debates take place on this issue, which is an entire topic on its own.


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