March 7 (Bloomberg) — Harvard University scientists are a step closer to creating synthetic forms of life, part of a drive to design man-made organisms that may one day be used to help produce new fuels and create biotechnology drugs.
Researchers led by George Church, whose findings helped spur the U.S. human genome project in the 1980s, have copied the part of a living cell that makes proteins, the building blocks of life. The finding overcomes a major roadblock in making synthetic self-replicating organisms, Church said today in a lecture at Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The technology can be used to program cells to make virtually any protein, even some that don’t exist in nature, the scientists said. That may allow production of helpful new drugs, chemicals and organisms, including living bacteria. It also opens the door to ethical concerns about creation of processes that may be uncontrollable by life’s natural defenses.
“It’s the key component to making synthetic life,” Church said yesterday in a telephone call with reporters. “We haven’t made synthetic life and it’s not our primary goal, but this is a huge milestone in that direction.”