Press Release

IBEA Receives $3 Million Dept. of Energy Grant for Synthetic Genome Development

Hamilton Smith, M.D., Nobel Laureate, Named Scientific Director of IBEA

ROCKVILLE, MD--November 21, 2002 -- The Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives (IBEA) has been awarded a three-year, $3 million grant from the Office of Science, Department of Energy. The grant will be used for research to develop a synthetic chromosome which is a first step in the Institute's work toward developing cost-effective and efficient biological energy sources. Nobel Laureate Hamilton O. Smith, M.D., has joined IBEA as scientific director.

"With fossil fuel consumption continuing to rise and with it serious environmental damage to our planet, it is imperative that we explore alternative ideas to abate this situation," said J. Craig Venter, Ph.D., president of IBEA. "IBEA was founded with the goal of exploring biological mechanisms for dealing with carbon sequestration and to study the creation of other potential energy sources such as hydrogen. We believe that building a synthetic chromosome is an important step toward realizing these goals because we could potentially engineer an organism with the ideal qualities to begin to cope with our energy issues."

According to Dr. Smith the work is in its earliest phases but has exciting possibilities, "We have just begun what will probably be long but intellectually challenging work in trying to create a synthetic genome. I am convinced this project can succeed, and look forward to working with Craig again as we try to propel the science of genomics forward in a new area."

This current research project had its origins at The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR) with work that was done on Mycoplasma genitalium in 1995 1. Dr. Venter and his team led by Claire M. Fraser, Ph.D., now president of TIGR, sequenced the genome of the common bacterium and discovered that it had a very small number of genes--517. In subsequent research published in 1999 2, the team at TIGR began to explore the minimal number of genes that were essential to sustain Mycoplasma and estimated that number to be between 265 and 350. Of those nearly one-third were of unknown function. The TIGR scientists realized that while this work could have important implications to improve the understanding of microbial and human cellular biology and evolutionary biology, it would be necessary to explore the ethical ramification if scientists sought to synthesize cells. For that reason, the group commissioned a bioethics panel to consider all sides of this novel work and self-imposed a moratorium on this research.

The bioethics group, led by Mildred Cho, Ph.D., Stanford University, delved into various ethical aspects of creating a new, synthetic bacterium. Their conclusions, published at the same time as the minimal genome 3, were that there are no substantive technical, ethical, or religious reasons why this work should not proceed. Given the important uses that this synthetic genome could serve in carbon sequestration or hydrogen production, Dr. Venter and his team began applications of the work several months ago at IBEA.

IBEA currently has 10 scientists led by Dr. Smith working on this project and will scale-up to approximately 25 staff. The group is currently working in temporary laboratories in the Maryland Technology Center but will eventually move into new lab space under construction on the TIGR campus.

Dr. Smith was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1978 for co-discovering restriction enzymes and their application to problems of molecular genetics while at The Johns Hopkins University. In collaboration with TIGR scientists, he was instrumental in developing the novel approaches that led to the sequencing of the first-free living organism, Haemophilus influenzae in 1995. Dr. Smith joined Celera Genomics in 1998 soon after its formation. He and his small yet creative team developed and built the novel DNA libraries used in the fruit fly, human, and mouse genome sequencing projects. His expertise in handling DNA is legendary and has been a key component of genomic sequencing projects undertaken at TIGR and Celera.

1. Science Fraser et al. 1995 Oct 20; 70(5235):397-403
2. Science: Hutchinson et al. 1999 Dec 10; 286(5447): 2165
3. Science: Cho et al. 1999 Dec 10; 286(5447): 2087

About IBEA

The Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives (IBEA) is a scientific research institution. IBEA will seek ways to use biology and genetics to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide that is released into the atmosphere by current sources of energy such as petroleum and coal. It also will seek to produce clean fuels. By studying the genes of plants and microorganisms living on land or in the sea, IBEA may be able to apply genomics to enhance the ability of terrestrial and oceanic microbial communities to remove carbon from the atmosphere and thus lessen global warming. IBEA also will study how microorganisms digest raw materials to develop modified organisms that produce non-polluting fuels such as hydrogen. IBEA will undertake genome engineering to better understand the evolution of cellular life and how these cell components function together in a living system.


Heather Kowalski
Kowalski Communications