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Such painstaking cut, study and paste eventually did the job. Not only did Venter's team members succeed in building their own mycoplasma at their own lab benches, they also took the opportunity to rewrite its genetic score. First, they introduced a mutation that would prevent it from causing disease. Then they branded it with a series of watermarks that would distinguish it as a product of their lab. Using a code built around selected genes, they spelled out five words that Venter coyly refuses to reveal, saying only that any molecular-biology study can suss them out and promising that there are no obscenities. The next step, which could happen in a matter of months, will be to insert the gene into a cell and see if it indeed stirs to life. "This team is betting its reputation that that will happen in 2008," Venter says.
Not everyone believes he will succeed or if he does, that it will matter much. Corporate giants like DuPont already put synthetic biology to industrial use. In the company's Loudon, Tenn., plant, for example, billions of E. coli bacteria stew inside massive tanks. The bacteria's genomes contain 23 alterations that instruct it to digest sugar from corn and produce propane diol, a polyester used in carpets, clothing and plastics. The hard-working bugs churn out 100 million lbs. (45 million kg) of the stuff each day, and all it took was a little tinkering with their genomes, not the construction of a new one. "In terms of whether I can think of anything I can only do with a whole synthetic chromosome that I can't do now, the short answer is no," says John Pierce, vice president of technology at DuPont Applied BioSciences.
Collins, Venter's once and perhaps future rival, whose group at the NIH is also working on creating synthetic genes, echoes that doubt. "Suppose I have a pile of dirt in my backyard and I want to move it," he says. "I could spend months building the components, but I already have a lawn tractor, so what I need to do is add a front loader. Why not take the shortest path?"
Venter agrees that this all makes sense but only if you accept a limited view of the science. He is not alone. "We are starting to turn the corner," says Jay Keasling, a bioengineer at the University of California, Berkeley. "The technologies are starting to be put in place, and it's crazy to keep doing biology the way we are doing it."
Still, after spending his career trying to digitize, quantify and standardize biology, even Venter recognizes that there may be some aspects of life that simply can't be understood without a nod to what he calls the "mystery and majesty" of the cell. Well before he became involved constructing artificial life, he christened his sailboat with a name that may reveal as much about that awareness as about what he is trying to accomplish: he called it Sorcerer.