Genetically engineered bacterium to produce hydrogen?

Genetically engineered bacterium to produce hydrogen?

By Jeff Havens, Staff Writer

The Nov. 22 edition of USA Today said geneticists J. Craig Vetner and Hamilton Smith have received a $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to create a bacterium that can be used on a massive scale and will produce hydrogen or remove global-warming carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

If successful, the experiment could be another step toward a hydrogen, rather than a fossil-fuel based economy. The experiment could also mean that greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, which are produced by burning fossil fuels, could be safely removed from the air.

The research involves removing the genetic material from Mycoplasma genetalium—a bacterium that commonly lives in the human genital tract. Once removed, new genetic material is inserted into the organism. The researchers’ hope is that the altered bacterium will produce hydrogen or consume carbon dioxide, depending on which type of genetic material is inserted.

However, University of Virginia’s bio-medical ethicist Jonathan Moreno said the project raises questions about the unknowns of genetically altering an organism’s DNA—the molecular blueprint for life. Such unknowns would be the bacterium’s potential impact on the environment and interactions with other organisms.

University of Colorado Professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology Norman Pace, who has worked with the organism which Vetner and Smith will be using, said he doubts the bacterium will be able to live anywhere but the researchers’ test tube. Pace said the bacterium is very fragile if genes are removed.

Department of Energy spokesman Jeff Sherwood said the work that Vetner and Smith will be undertaking is “fundamentally no different” than research done by other geneticists who alter DNA in organisms in other laboratories all over the world.

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