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Promise and pitfalls in quest to create new life-form

Scientists announce a federally funded bid to create a new living organism.

Amid a genetic revolution that has seen scientists catalog and manipulate the most basic building blocks of organic life, two renowned scientists Thursday announced that they are planning to take perhaps the most profound step of all: designing and creating a new living organism.

Gene scientist J. Craig Venter and Hamilton Smith, a Nobel laureate, intend to use a $3 million federal grant to create a single-celled organism with the minimum number of genes necessary to sustain life. The long-term results could include new sources of energy and ways to detect biological weapons.

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At a time when scientists are unraveling complex genetic codes and cloning has become almost commonplace, developing a new life-form in the laboratory may be the logical next frontier. But, if anything, it raises even deeper ethical questions. The effort, all agree, goes to the very essence of science.

If successful, it would give scientists a genetic recipe for life in the simplest of known creatures. But its potential uses could also be catastrophic. As mankind's deeper understanding of the atom at the end of the 19th century spawned televisions and nuclear bombs, so this line of study could unleash not only new biological insights but more sophisticated weapons, some say.

With the help of an ethics panel convened to consider specifically this kind of research, Dr. Venter, the lead scientist, has already spoken of keeping some of the material classified - as scientists of the nuclear era did. Indeed, this research, like the Manhattan Project then, is being funded by the US Department of Energy.

By his announcement, Venter has put the issue out for public debate as science once again pushes the boundaries of human knowledge with the promise of a discovery both tantalizing and troublesome.

"The benefit is that you get an extremely powerful tool to really see what is the difference between a living and a nonliving thing, and I can't imagine anything more wondrous than that," says Arthur Caplan, who was on the ethics panel. "The downside is that this technology could be used for harmful purposes."

The plan is something that Venter has considered for years. It grew out of his study of a specific virus, called Mycoplasma genitalium, a common organism that is the simplest organism known to science. The idea is to remove the genetic material from the virus, then replace it with a synthetic substitute. If the researchers are able to figure out which combinations create a living organism and which ones do not, they may be able to begin to answer perhaps the most fundamental question of science: what organic life is.

"You could begin to untap the notion of life," says Dr. Caplan.

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That, of course, raises a host of questions, from whether humanity has the right to create life to the thorny issue of ownership. Precedent suggests that in America, scientists could, in fact, patent the life they create.

But in the context of the global war on terrorism, Venter's announcement Thursday was met primarily with caution. For some, the wonder of any scientific advance should be tempered by a clear-headed analysis of the dangers it might create.

"I don't think anybody should be making any new life forms or modifying any existing life forms, at least until we've had a serious societal discussion regarding its possible role and impact on terrorism and biowarfare," says George Annas of Boston University's School of Public Health.

Under one scenario, terrorists could alter a disease or organic biological weapon gene by gene to make it immune to current antidotes. Beyond that, some worry that the US itself might use it for its own cache of new-age weapons.

"If we convert it to a weapon, what's the difference?" asks Tom Shannon, professor of religion and social ethics at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. "We can claim we're the good guys and we won't use it. But we can look at Nagasaki and Hiroshima."

At this time, such a task is still too complicated. Venter has said his three-year timetable might be too short. But his project shows that the ability to do this might not be far off.

"There's no question but that this kind of approach could in the distant future - perhaps a decade - lay the groundwork for a new generation of biological weapons," says Mark Wheelis of the University of California in Davis. "Those of us who have been worried about the impact of technology on chemical and biological weapons control have seen this coming."

On a more accidental level, others worry that the organism, once created, could escape from its petri dish. Venter plans to take precautions. Obviously, he intends to create a benign organism, and he has said that his organism will be designed in such a way that it would die should it leave its laboratory home.

In the end, the most important step, many say, is that Venter brought this to the public's attention rather than keeping it a project cloaked in secrecy. "I would suspect that many scientists would not invite the same kind of public comment before actually undertaking the research," says Gigi Kwik of the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies. But it's good that he has, "because it brings the issue more into the open for discussion."

Staff writers Liz Marlantes, Brad Knickerbocker, and Laurent Belsie contributed to this report.