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24 May 2010

Biofuel industry offers guarded welcome to "synthetic cell" breakthrough

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Historic creation of "artificial life" promises to revolutionise biofuel sector – but Exxon Mobil predicts commercial applications are unlikely to realised for years to come

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 man-made 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 last 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 practically applied.

Biofuels produced from algae is seen as one of the most promising and attractive means for 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.


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