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Scientists step closer to playing god

AMERICAN scientists said they have taken an important step toward making an artificial life form by making a ribosome - the cell's factory.

The ribosome makes the proteins that carry out key business for all forms of life. Messenger RNA carries DNA's genetic instructions to a cell's ribosome, which then cooks up the desired protein. Every living organism from bacteria to humans uses a ribosome and they are all strikingly similar.

It is not quite artificial life but it's an important step in that direction, said George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, who directed the research with a single graduate student.

"If you going to make synthetic life that is anything like current life ... you have got to have this ... biological machine," Church said.

And it can have important industrial uses, especially for manufacturing drugs and proteins not found in nature.

Church stressed his research has not been published in a scientific journal, the usual route for reporting such work, but was presented to a seminar of Harvard alumni over the weekend.

Church's group is not seeking to make life in a test tube but instead to make designer proteins in lab dishes.

Genome pioneer Craig Venter is trying to make artificial life, using a company called Synthetic Genomics Inc. They are working on projects including synthetic vegetable oil that could be used as clean-burning biofuel.

Meanwhile, United States President Barack Obama was expected to lift predecessor George W. Bush's restrictions on federal funding for stem cell research yesterday.

The move will allow a rush of research aimed at better treatment, if not cures, for ailments from diabetes to paralysis.

Obama also planned to make a broad declaration that science - not political ideology - would guide his administration.

The research is controversial because days-old embryos must be destroyed to obtain the cells. They typically are culled from fertility-clinic leftovers otherwise destined to be thrown away. Bush banned their use, saying he was defending human life.

Bush limited taxpayer money for stem cell research to a small number of stem cell lines that were created before Auguest 9, 2001. Scientists say those newer lines are healthier and better suited to creating treatments for diseases but they were largely off-limits to researchers who took federal dollars.


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