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Guarded welcome for"synthetic cell" breakthough

Guarded welcome for"synthetic cell" breakthough

It has been hailed as one of the most significant and controversial scientific breakthroughs in decades, raising the prospect of a new era of synthetic biology that promises to tackle many of the world's environmental problems. But renewable energy experts downplayed news that a team of scientists have created the world's first artificial cell, warning it will take years before the breakthrough can be put to commercial use.

Scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI), led by geneticist Craig Venter, today published a paper in the journal Science detailing how they have successfully created the first synthetic bacterial cell, effectively creating what some scientists have hailed as an entirely new species.

JCVI's commercial backer Synthetic Genomics (SGI), which was co-founded by Venter, issued a statement applauding the discovery as a major breakthrough that will ultimately enable the development of manmade organic technologies capable of producing biofuels and tackling pollution.

The development is expected to have a wide range of medical and environmental applications. However, the company is set to initially focus on the production of synthetic cells that could be used to create new algae-based biofuels. The firm already has a major biofuels research and engineering programme underway and a high profile backer following the signing laast year of a major partnership agreement with global oil and gas corporation Exxon Mobil.

However, the breakthrough brought no more than a cautious welcome from the biofuels industry, with a number of commentators questioning just how soon the discovery could be practical applied.

Biofuels produced from algae is seen as one of the most promising and attractive means fo generating low carbon fuel as it can be produced without eating into agricultural land. Moreover, scientists reckon genetic modification or the creation of entirely new species pioneered by Venter's team could significantly increase yields from algae, allowing the resulting biofuels to compete on price with fossil fuels.

But Clare Wenner, head of renewable transport, at the Renewable Energy Association warned that while the latest breakthrough was welcome it was highly unlikely that algae-baased biofuels would become commercially viable within the next decade.

"I really don't think we should be over excited about this breakthrough because [the commercialisation of algal biofuels] is a long way away," she told BusinessGreen.com. "A lot of people are very interested [in advancing research] but the yield for algae is really quite tiny at the moment. You might have half a fingernail's worth in your pot of face cream. It's a biofuel of high quality used in niche markets."

A spokeswoman for the European Biomass Industry Association similarly warned that the development was too "early stage" to draw any conclusion as to its long term commercial viability.

Meanwhile, Friends of the Earth in the US issued a stark warning against the unforeseen environmental implications that could occur if artificial life is allowed to leave the laboratory.

The green group's genetic technology policy campaigner Eric Hoffman called on the US government to fully regulate all synthetic biology experiments and products. "It is imperative that in the pursuit of scientific experimentation, we do not sacrifice human health, the environment, and natural ecosystems," he said. "Mr Venter should stop all further research until sufficient regulations are in place."

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