By SIMON COLLINS
Gene engineers are looking to starfish for what could be the answer to the dreams of amputees - a gene that could regenerate lost limbs.
Dr Rick Lathrop, a biomedical computing expert at the University of California, says his team is already creating new genes that will give people more resistance than natural genes to diseases such as genital warts.
The work is still in the laboratory, and has yet to be tried on animals, let alone humans.
But he expects that the new understanding of genes will revolutionise medicine.
"It's going to unlock the basic secrets of life," he said in Auckland, where he is a main speaker at the Pacific Rim International Conference on Artificial Intelligence.
"The human genome has about 3 billion letters [of genetic code]. All the variation amongst humans is only one-tenth of 1 per cent of the genome. We are 99.9 per cent similar to each other."
On the same basis, we are 98 per cent identical to chimpanzees, 36 per cent the same as a fly and 15 per cent the same as a simple plant called thale cress.
"Starfish can regenerate limbs," Dr Lathrop said. "We are highly similar to starfish [compared to flies or plants]. We will come to understand aging, cancer and the regeneration of limbs."
He said his confidence came from the powerful marriage of the new genetic understanding with modern computers, which could search huge sets of genetic data to spot mutant genes or proteins which may be causing diseases - or unique genes with special benefits such as the ability to remake limbs.
His team sees DNA - the genetic material making up all living things - as being able to be studied and potentially manipulated at the level of individual atoms.
"We are trying to put small pieces together to make something we wanted," he said.
Genetic researchers in the University of California team have built artificial genes from smallpox and from the human papilloma virus which causes the genital warts implicated in ovarian cancer.
"Some of the genes for the human papilloma virus are not naturally occurring genes," Dr Lathrop said.
"They have designed them to be ones that they believe would be more effective as an antigen [something which the body recognises as alien] to induce an immune response."
The team is also working on creating genetic mutations to block a tumour-suppressing protein called P53 when it malfunctions and allows cancer cells to spread.
They have found that 18 per cent of cancers caused by mutations somewhere on the P53 protein can be suppressed by creating another mutation on a different part of the protein.
"This is speculative," Dr Lathrop said. "It's only in the universities that we have the freedom to take on problems that are long-term and very risky."
The project uses software developed at Waikato University, called Waikato Environment for Knowledge Analysis, or Weka.
Auckland University Professor Garth Cooper said New Zealand researchers hoped to use similar techniques to regenerate brain cells in patients with degenerative conditions such as Huntington's disease.
"There are animals that regenerate limbs, many of them," he said. "Whether we will ever be able to do it I don't know."