It’s not creation, but it’s a technical achievement full of promise.
To say that Craig Venter’s latest contribution is garnering hype would be one of the understatements of the year. The paper, whose title begins “Creation of a Bacterial Cell…” was published in the print version of Science on July 2—Daniel Gibson was the first of many authors, Venter the last—but it had already appeared online on May 20 and generated a lot of comment, not least of all by Venter himself.
As he said in his May 21 press conference, “We’re here today to announce the first synthetic cell,” and, “This is the first self-replicating species that we’ve had on the planet whose parent is a computer.”
Well, not exactly.
What they actually did was take the sequence of a bacterial cell’s genome, synthesize it from DNA bases, attach some code that says “I’m man-made” (to avoid misleading future scientists, in case it should go wild), and insert that synthesized (really re-synthesized) genome into a cell from a closely related bacterial species that had been surgically relieved of its own.
Result: a nature-made bacterial cell powered by a human-made genome which was basically a copy of a nature-made genome–a little less overwhelming than the hype.
It actually began with noisy anticipation not long after Venter’s group (alongside that of Francis Collins) shared credit for the first draft sequence of the human genome. Venter soon announced that the creation of life was his next goal, and by February 14, 2003, a news article in Science was headlined this way:
“Tinker, Tailor: Can Venter Stitch Together a Genome from Scratch?” and, “J. Craig Venter plans to create microbes to cure the world’s environmental woes. Whether he can even partially succeed is an open question.” It still is.
At that time he thought he would achieve the first step—“creating a synthetic genome that, when inserted into a cell, can live and replicate”—in three years. It took seven. Some of the unexpected obstacles included complexity and unpredictability of even a bacterial genome, the absence of knowledge of the functions of many parts, their highly specific and unknown effects on each other, and incompatability of genomic parts that at first might appear interchangeable.
So the first step took seven years, and life was not really synthesized, just reprogrammed with a somewhat altered genome.
Some find this game-changing; the distinguished bioethicist Arthur Kaplan wrote in late May, “Venter’s achievement would seem to extinguish the argument that life requires a special force or power to exist. In my view, this makes it one of the most important scientific achievements in the history of mankind.”
Whew. Fortunately, this effusive appraisal was part of a symposium in Nature, where some scientists were slightly less gee-whiz:
“Relax,” wrote Jim Collins, a biomedical engineer at Boston University. “The work…is an important advance in our ability to re-engineer organisms. It does not represent the making of new life from scratch.”
Martin Fusseneger, a professor of biotechnology at ETH Zurich, said, “It is a technical advance, not a conceptual one.” George Church, a geneticist at the Harvard Medical School, said, “The semi-synthetic mycobacterium is not changed from the wild state in any fundamental sense. Printing out a copy of an ancient text isn’t the same as understanding the language.”
And Steen Rasmussen, a physicist at the University of Southern Denmark, said, “the radical ‘top-down’ genetic engineering that Venter’s team has done does not quite constitute a ‘synthetic cell’ by my definition…The top-down community seeks to rewrite the genetics program running on the ‘hardware’ of the modern cell…Bottom-up researchers, such as myself, aim to assemble life—including the hardware and the program.”
I’m on record as an admirer of Venter (unlike some academics), and if his entrepreneurial spirit gets out of hand a bit sometimes, I don’t mind. “Partial genetic reprogramming of a bacterial cell” would have been more circumspect than announcing the “creation” of a cell. I am sure Dr. Venter did not choose the word “creation,” so often associated with God, by accident.
Nevertheless, this is indeed a critical first step toward the ultimate goal not of playing God, but of making helpful organisms—ones that can eat huge oilspills like the one in the Gulf of Mexico, and then quietly die away; or mine metal ores, replacing horrendous forms of human effort; or compete with and outfox microbes that kill us.
A new responsibility? Sure. But also a welcome one. Less than the hype, but still something for Craig and his colleagues to write home about.
As for faith not everyone’s is easily challenged. I remember talking as a boy with a friend who had become an ultra-Orthodox Jew. The subject was the then-recent amino acid synthesis in the lab under conditions meant to simulate the origin of life. Suppose, I asked, this work went on and life itself was really synthesized? My friend didn’t miss a beat: “I would say, God did it again!”