- When Craig Venter announced, in 2010, the production of a bacterium with a synthetic genome, the reaction in the media was typically hyperbolic. Headlines screamed that scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute had created "synthetic life", a "synthetic life form", "artificial life", with the use of the word "creation" sprinkled liberally across the front pages. The prize for compacting as much hyperbole as possible into the shortest space went, as so often, to the Daily Mail: "Scientist accused of playing God after creating artificial life by making designer microbe from scratch - but could it wipe out humanity?"
- Some of these headlines used scare quotes for their preferred frightening catchphrases, and they did so advisedly. For, in reply to Frequently Asked Questions about its achievement, specifically question 1, "Is your work in creating a synthetic bacterial cell 'creating life from scratch'?", the Institute stated: "No we do not consider this to be 'creating life from scratch' but rather we are creating new life out of already existing life using synthetic DNA to reprogram the cells to form new cells that are specified by the synthetic DNA". This somewhat more modest explanation of what Venter and his team achieved is the same as that given by virtually all the biologists and biotechnologists who have been quoted on the subject, a typical response being that of Nobel laureate Sir Paul Nurse: "Venter's work is a major advance. But it's not a creation of synthetic life … Creation of synthetic life would be to make an entire bacterial cell through chemicals."
- Interestingly - and perhaps not so surprisingly - some philosophers have been less cautious in the way they have expressed themselves. Bioethicist Arthur Caplan exclaimed:
Venter and his colleagues have shown that the material world can be manipulated to produce what we recognize as life. In doing so they bring to an end a debate about the nature of life that has lasted thousands of years. Their achievement undermines a fundamental belief about the nature of life that is likely to prove as momentous to our view of ourselves and our place In the Universe as the discoveries of Galileo, Copernicus, Darwin and Einstein.
- And again
Scientists, theologians and philosophers have been wrangling over this issue for eons. For many, the wondrous nature of what permits something to be alive has been a mystery that science never, ever could penetrate. Life is sacred, special, ineffable and beyond human understanding. Except it isn't.
- More importantly, leading philosopher of "artificial life" Mark A. Bedau incautiously elaborated on Venter's achievement thus:
There are a couple of reasons why this achievement should not be called the creation of "new" life. First, the form of life that was created was not new. What was essentially done was the re-creation of an existing bacterial form of life, except that it was given a prosthetic genome (synthesized in the laboratory), and except that the genome was put into the cytoplasm of a slightly different species.
- The impression he gives here is that the Venter Institute did not create new life but that it did create life. To be fair, he goes on to acknowledge the objection that life was not created at all, if creation implies the synthesis of an organism other than by modifying an existing one, more precisely if it implies the synthesis of a whole organism. But this, for him, is a mere technical obstacle: "A handful of research teams around the globe are working on trying to create fully synthetic cells (sometimes called "protocells") using materials obtained solely from a chemical supply company. Even a living protocell would still not qualify as creation from nothing, of course, since it would be created from pre-existing materials."
- Needless to say, no one is suggesting that the big question here is whether life can literally be created ex nihilo, so the last sentence is a red herring. The heart of the matter - what really shocks and excites in equal measure - is whether the synthesis of a whole organism from a non-organism merely awaits further technological progress. The Venter achievement does not prove this. What his team did was as follows. First, they began with the computerized genome of the naturally-occurring bacterium Mycoplasma mycoides. Then, they synthesized this genome in yeast by the method of oligonucleotide synthesis, well known for decades as a way of producing short fragments of DNA, RNA, and other organic molecules. These fragments were assembled in yeast to form the complete genome of M. mycoides. The team inserted some artificial sequences into the genome, representing encoded watermarks: instead of an amino acid being associated with a codon (a nucleotide triple), the team produced codons associated with letters of the alphabet, resulting in a cipher encoding a quotation from James Joyce, a copyright statement, an email address, names of team members, and so on. This synthetic genome was isolated from the yeast and transplanted into a cell of Mycoplasma capricolum, a naturally-occurring goat parasite, that had had its defenses against foreign DNA removed. The M. capricolum genome was destroyed by the new genome or otherwise lost during cell replication1. After two days, the team detected viable M. mycoides cells with no trace of the M. capricolum DNA in them, only the synthesized DNA, watermarks and all.
Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
- Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2020
- Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)