Dr Craig Venter (he of the human genome fame) has today announced that his institute has made a breakthrough in the creation of synthetic life
I won’t go into the science in detail as it is available elsewhere, but essentially what has been achieved is the insertion of an artificially synthesised bacterial chromosome into the cell of a different bacterium whose own chromosome had been removed.
In this instance the artificial chromosome was designed as a computer sequence mimicking that of Mycoplasma mycoides synthesised in vitro as short strands and “stitched” together by insertion into a yeast.
When the fully compiled chromosome was inserted into M. capricolum the resulting bacterium functioned and expressed the proteins of mycoides.
This is a brilliant result and proof of principle but it is not the creation of “synthetic life” in the way most of us would describe it.
Synthesising a DNA sequence is one thing, the chemistry is relatively straightforward, even if the techniques to achieve it are complex. However to function as life that DNA needs access to the complex array of organelles, ribosomes, transcription RNA and infrastructure of an already living cell. In practice this technique is doing little more than a naturally occuring bacteriophage does when it hijacks the machinary of a host cell.
This is important why? Because already the doomsayers are predicting runaway pathogens, the woo merchants are trotting out the “playing God” cliches and the press are making comparisons to Frankenstein.
Now, it’s not that this sort of technology is risk free. But the essence of what can be done with it is not new. We can already manipulate bacterial genomes to make unique species that will, for example, produce vaccines as a product of their metabolism. Which is exactly the sort of thing Dr Venter hopes to achieve with his technique. But we already have the controls and the precautionary principles in place for this. The source of the variation in the genome is largely irrelevant for the purpose of risk assessment.
The promise of the Venter’s achievement is that gene sequences will be able to be more specifically modified to allow bacterial metabolisms to be harnessed for hydrocarbon production, drugs or chemicals. But the idea that totally novel “Frankenstein” microbes will swamp the earth anytime soon is fantasy.
This whole project failed at the previous attempt purely because one gene was coded incorrectly, and the organism that has been produced is a replication of one already selected by evolution to function.
This is not therefore “synthetic life”, it is just another tool in the armoury of genetic engineering for us to employ, carefully, for our future benefit.
"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"