Craig Venter has done it. After some fifteen years of research and $40
million, the pioneering scientist has created
what some are calling the first "synthetic cell."
His team synthesized a bacterial genome and used it to take over a cell.
Venter described the end product as "the first self-replicating species
we’ve had on the planet whose parent is a computer.” So did Venter
create life from scratch? Not exactly. But it has fueled a vibrant
discussion on bioethics and where this could lead. Here's what's buzzing
in scientific circles:
- Is It Man-Made Life? Carl Zimmer at Discover fleshes it
out: "It’s hard to say whether this is 'life from scratch,' because the
boundary between such a thing and ordinary life (and non-life) is
actually blurry. For example, you could say that this is still a nature
hybrid, because its DNA is based on the sequence of an existing species
of bacteria. If Venter made up a sequence from scratch, maybe we’d have
crossed to a new terrain."
- I Have Not Created Life, says Venter: "We've created the first synthetic
cell. We definitely have not created life from scratch because we used a
recipient cell to boot up the synthetic chromosome." Jim Collins, a bioengineer at Boston
University agrees. “My worry is that some people are going to draw the
conclusion that they have created a new life form. What they have
created is an organism with a synthesized natural genome. But it doesn’t
represent the creation of life from scratch or the creation of a new
- It's Ultimately a Philosophical Question, says Andy Elington, a synthetic
biologist at the University of Texas in Austin: "Whether you agree or
not is a philosophical question, not a scientific one as there is no
biological difference between synthetic bacteria and the real thing. The
bacteria didn't have a soul, and there wasn't some animistic property
of the bacteria that changed."
- Don't Start the Ethical Concerns Just Yet, writes PZ Myers at Pharyngula: "Give it a decade
or two, though, and we'll have all kinds of new capabilities in our
hands. The ethical concerns now are a little premature, though, because
we have no idea what our children and grandchildren will be able to do
with this power... We're going to have to sit back, enjoy the ride, and
watch carefully for new promises and perils as they emerge."
- Does This Vindicate Physicalism? Christina Agapakis at Science
blogs doesn't think so: "What separates a bag of DNA from a living,
replicating cell is still unclear and un-synthesizable. To me, life is
still 'special' and incredibly powerful and I don't think that we have
to burst that bubble to be able to engineer cells. I'm a biologist
because I think life is awesome. I'm a synthetic biologist because I
think it's awesome to be able to see and experience just how robust and
powerful biology is as we rewire, remix, and refactor living cells, not
because I want life to be just chemicals, just DNA sequence."
- Here Comes the Deism vs. Atheism Debate, writes Andrew Brown at The Guardian:
"Atheists of the Dawkins type will take it as practical proof that there
is no need to hypothesise God at all: we can make life without any
miracles, and there's no need to imagine a creator; Christians will
retort that they don't think that God exists the way that things exist,
and that God is no longer a man in the clouds with a long white beard;
still less is he a man with a short white beard, like Ventner. Both
sides will continue to shout past one another, feeling entirely
vindicated by events."
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