Much of the media has reported today on the creation of “artificial life” by a team led by the famous/infamous Craig Venter, the outspoken biotech billionaire who first announced to the world the mapping of the human genome. But is this breakthrough quite as significant as they’re making out?
The Daily Mail went with “Artificial life created in lab – ethical storm as maverick scientists makes a synthetic cell” on its front page today. “God 2.0” proclaims the Guardian. Almost all report that Craig Venter has created the world’s first synthetic life form, but some of the science community isn’t convinced.
Professor Paul Nurse, Nobel Prize winner and President-elect of the Royal Society, valiantly tried to calm the frenzy on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning.
“It is the first time a bacterial cell has been made that is controlled entirely by DNA that has made in a test tube, and that's a significant advance, but not the creation of synthetic life,” he said.
“The creation of synthetic life would be to make an entire bacterial cell, all the different parts of it.
“What [Venter has] made is the DNA molecule – the molecule of heredity – entirely in a test tube, and then introduced that into an already existing bacterial cell, and that DNA has taken over control of that cell.”
Venter’s technique involves stitching individual molecules together to make strands of DNA. Like individual letters in a novel, getting just one wrong means part of it doesn’t make sense, so this technique is painstaking, delicate work.
This story raises an interesting discussion – how do you define synthetic life? You could argue that the DNA of this cell is the really important part, the instructions that make it work. So if that DNA is artificial, and it has taken over the functioning of the cell, it could be thought of as a new driver in a second-hand car. The machinery’s the same but the force in charge has totally changed.
But then again, as my esteemed RSC colleague Dr James Hutchinson pointed out when I tested my clumsy car analogy on him, “the DNA controls the development of the cell from the very beginning. The structure of that machinery would be changed as the cell differentiated [decided what kind of cell it would grow up to be].” So the role of DNA is far more complicated than just driving the car; it designed it from scratch, too.
Venter’s breakthrough is certainly an interesting one, scientifically-speaking. The idea of programmable bugs is attractive as they could be designed to, say, eat carbon dioxide, or excrete fuel. Professor Nurse isn’t sure that Venter’s work represents a big step toward this goal, however:
“With pre-existing technologies we will probably be able to make these sorts of microbes rather more easily than using [Venter's] techniques.”
For a clear and balanced view, I'd recommend the BBC News Online piece.
While some of the media inevitably gets het up about the ethical debate of creating life and playing God, questioning the “spark” of life and the nature of existence, scientists are still debating if a single-celled bacterium with new programming even counts as artificial life. I think Dr "Bones" McCoy's immortal line encompasses what we can agree on: "it's life, Jim... but not as we know it."