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US scientists create bacteria-eating virus
( 2003-11-14 11:18) (AFP)

US researchers said they have created an artificial bacteria-eating virus -- in just 14 days and from synthetic genes.

The Phi-X174 bacteriophage was developed from its genetic code. It took the scientists just 14 days to make the artificial virus -- against several years for other methods -- according to the National Academy of Sciences.

Dr. Craig Venter and a team of US researchers have succeeded in creating an artificial virus from synthetic genes that can attack bacteria.  [AFP/File]
The breakthrough could be the first step on a long path toward helping fight certain incurable diseases or gobbling up toxic waste, according to the experts. It could also help create organisms that can live in extreme conditions such as radioactivity and intense pollution.

The work was led by Craig Venter, the head of the Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives (IBEA), who has also been closely involved in work on mapping the human genome sequence.

Scientists had previously built a poliovirus from parts of other living things in stages that can take months or years. However, Venter's team began "from scratch " -- using commercially available products.

They also used off-the-shelf techniques that scientists have been developing for 30 years.

In order to achieve such rapid results, scientists adapted a technique that produces a double-stranded copy of an individual gene sequence. The technique is used to decode DNA for forensic identification of criminals as well as for medical purposes.

This polymerase chain reaction technique took 14 days to create an identical DNA of the virus.

The virus is not capable of attacking human cells, scientists were quick to point out.

"The potential for this research to revolutionize our future is enormous," US Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham said in a statement.

"Researchers have made an exciting scientific advance that may speed our ability to develop biology-based solutions for some of our most pressing energy and environmental challenges.

"With this advance it is easier to imagine -- in the not-too-distant future -- a colony of specially designed microbes living within the emission-control system of a coal-fired plant, consuming its pollution and its carbon dioxide, or employing microbes to radically reduce water pollution or to reduce the toxic effects of radioactive waste," he said.

U.S. Department of Energy said it backed Venter's team with three million dollars. The department gave another nine million dollars in April.

The IBEA is based in Rockville, Maryland, just outside Washington. Venter founded IBEA and is its president. It began the virus project in 2002.

After working on mapping the human genome, Venter said his next aim was to create a new form of synthetic life.

His goal is to develop a synthetic genome that is the first step toward the creation of efficient and profitable biological sources of energy, according to Venter, who formerly headed the Celera Genomics research firm, also in Rockville.

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