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Scientists attempting to create new life form

Scientists say a government grant will help them try to create a new form of life in the laboratory in an effort to develop new sources of energy and detect biological weapons.

"We could potentially engineer an organism with the ideal qualities to begin to cope with our energy issues," gene scientist J. Craig Venter said Thursday in a statement.

Venter and Hamilton Smith, a Nobel laureate, plan to use a $3-million Energy Department grant to create a single-celled, partly artificial organism with the minimum number of genes necessary to sustain life, they said. If the plan works, the microscopic cell will begin feeding and dividing to create a population of cells unlike any known to exist.

The plan is to figure out and model in a computer every aspect of the biology of one organism.

The project could lay the scientific groundwork for a new generation of biological weapons. But Venter and Smith said the project could also enhance the nation's ability to detect and counter existing biological weapons.

The plan will begin with Mycoplasma genitalium, a tiny organism that lives in the genital tracts of people and may cause or contribute to an inflammation of the urethra. All genetic material will be removed from the organism. Scientists will synthesize an artificial string of genetic material, resembling a naturally occurring chromosome, that they hope will contain the minimum number of M. genitalium genes needed to sustain life.

The artificial chromosome will then be inserted in the hollowed-out cell, where it will be tested for its ability to survive and reproduce.

Venter and Smith founded Celera Genomics Corp., the Rockville, Md., company where researchers tied government scientists in deciphering the human genome two years ago.

Venter resigned from Celera this year and is financing several projects. One of them is the Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives, where the work on a new life form is to be carried out.

The new cell will be hobbled to render it incapable of infecting people _ a safety precaution. It also will be confined and designed to die if it enters the environment, the Washington Post reported.