By David Whitehouse
Science editor, BBC News website
Craig Venter - one of the scientists behind the sequencing of the human genetic code - aims to construct a living organism from a kit of genes.
Craig Venter has long held the aim of synthesising bacteria
It would be a biological milestone were he to succeed and would open a debate about the nature of life.
Dr Venter's company will work out the minimum number of genes a bacterium needs, synthesise the genetic material and then put it in an empty cell.
Ultimately, designer bacteria could be used for industrial tasks, he claims.
Dr Venter has been this way before when initiated a project in the late 1990s to determine the minimum number of genes required to sustain a lifeform.
At the time, the work prompted ethical discussions over the limits to which humans should try to manipulate a living organism.
Next great phase
"Our sequencing of the first genomes, including the human genome, set the stage for this next great phase in understanding biology, which will ultimately enable us to pursue applications that will improve the environment and transform several industries," says Hamilton Smith, a Nobel laureate and co-founder of Synthetic Genomics.
Synthetic Genomics intends to construct an organism with a "minimal genome" that can then be inserted into the shell of a bacterium.
Initially, Dr Venter plans to replace the genes in the 517-gene Mycoplasma genitalium, and then alter the bug so that it is tailor-made for certain industrial uses, such as cleaning up pollution or even removing greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere.
Two years ago, Dr Venter impressed the scientific world, and alarmed the public, when his team synthesised a genome to create the bacteriophage phiX174.
Although other researchers had constructed a virus from the genome up before Dr Venter, the Maryland scientist has long held the aim to construct the first man-made bacterium; this is a far more complex task.
Currently, Synthetic Genomics is removing the genes, one by one, from M. genitalium to identify the right gene set for the organism to survive in a controlled environment.
It is work that builds on research Dr Venter and colleagues at The Institute for Genomic Research (Tigr) published in 2002.
Benefits and risks
Once that has been done Synthetic Genomics will attempt to synthesise the genome and then "add the desired biological capabilities", before inserting the genetic construct into an environment "that allows metabolic activity and replication", the company says. In other words, the company would try to create the first semi-artificial cell.
According to Dr Venter: "Rapid advances now enable us to synthesise novel photosynthetic and metabolic pathways. Using diverse sets of genes, including those from over 300 fully sequenced genomes, will allow our new company to develop synthetic organisms for specific industrial applications.
"We are in an era of rapid advances in science and are beginning the transition from being able to not only read genetic code, but are now moving to the early stages of being able to write code," he said.
Three organisations - the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); the J Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland; and the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC - have just begun a 15-month study to examine the societal implications of synthetic genomics.
It will explore the risks and benefits of the emerging technology, as well as possible safeguards to prevent abuse, including bioterrorism.
"The field of synthetic genomics has the potential for groundbreaking scientific advances, including the development of alternative energy sources, and the production of new vaccines and pharmaceuticals," claimed Dr Venter.
"Synthetic genomics has the potential to enable significant societal, environmental and medical benefits, and with this study we are trying to help ensure that outcome."
The first synthetic virus was assembled in 2002 by a team from the University of New York at Stony Brook.
It was built from scratch using the genome sequence from the polio virus.
And earlier this year, scientists at Rockefeller University produced small synthetic vesicles that could process (express) genes in much the same way as bacterial cells do it.
Dr Venter is best known for his role in a company called Celera Genomics and its mission to produce a private version of the human genetic code. Celera Genomics planned to sell the information to subscribers.
The business model did not succeed, largely because the publicly funded version of the code was posted without restriction on the internet.