Did Craig Venter Just Create Synthetic Life? The Jury Is Decidedly Out

By Eliza Strickland | May 20, 2010 5:54 pm

synthetic-cellsIn another step forward in the quest to create artificial life in a test tube, a team of genetic engineers led by Craig Venter has built a synthetic genome and proved that it can power up when placed inside an existing cell.

Dr. Venter calls the result a “synthetic cell” and is presenting the research as a landmark achievement that will open the way to creating useful microbes from scratch to make products like vaccines and biofuels. At a press conference Thursday, Dr. Venter described the converted cell as “the first self-replicating species we’ve had on the planet whose parent is a computer.” [The New York Times]

The technical achievement is worth crowing about. The researchers built on Venter’s trick from last year, in which he took the genome from one bacterium, transferred it the hollowed-out shell of a different bacterial species, and watched as the new cell “booted up” successfully. In this new step, the researchers built a genome from scratch, copying the genetic code from a bacterium that infects goats and introducing just a few changes as a “watermark”; then they transferred that synthetic genome to a cell. As the researchers report in Science, the cell functioned and replicated, creating more copies of the slightly altered goat-infecting bacterium–now nicknamed Synthia.

But the reactions to Venter’s accomplishment have been mixed–while some celebratory headlines trumpeted the creation of artificial life, many scientists said the reaction was overblown, and took issue with Venter’s claim of having created a truly synthetic cell. Here, we round up a selection of responses from all corners of the science world.

Bioethicist Arthur Caplan finds the philosophical ramifications of the work fascinating:

“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.” [Nature News]

But many experts say that since Venter copied a pre-existing genome, he didn’t really create a new life form.

“To my mind Craig has somewhat overplayed the importance of this,” said David Baltimore, a leading geneticist at Caltech. Dr. Baltimore described the result as “a technical tour de force” but not breakthrough science, but just a matter of scale…. “He has not created life, only mimicked it,” Dr. Baltimore said [The New York Times].

In addition, many experts note that the experimenters got a big boost by placing the synthetic genome in a preexisting cell, which was naturally inclined to make sense of the transplanted DNA and to turn genes on and off. Thus, they say, it’s not accurate to label the experiment’s product a true “synthetic cell.”

Meanwhile, physicist Freeman Dyson backed his way into paying the researchers a compliment in his own inimitable way:

This experiment, putting together a living bacterium from synthetic components, is clumsy, tedious, unoriginal. From the point of view of aesthetic and intellectual elegance, it is a bad experiment. But it is nevertheless a big discovery. It opens the way to the new world of synthetic biology. It proves that sequencing and synthesizing DNA give us all the tools we need to create new forms of life. After this, the tools will be improved and simplified, and synthesis of new creatures will become quicker and cheaper. Nobody can predict the new discoveries and surprises that the new technology will bring [The Edge].

And while some horrified environmentalists called for an immediate halt to such experiments, arguing that unnatural life forms could cause unknown disasters if released into the wild, Paul Keim of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity was quick to reassure the public.

Keim said there is no new hazard because the Venter team manufactured a genome whose structure and function were already understood. The researchers didn’t create a novel life form. “We have a long way to go before we see a totally synthetic organism that does something important or dangerous,” he said. [Washington Post]

Related Content:
Not Exactly Rocket Science: Scientists Create First Ever Synthetic Bacterium That Looks Like Craig Venter
80beats:Synthetic Life By the Year’s End? Yes, Proclaims Craig Venter.
80beats: On the Quest for Synthetic Life, Scientists Build Their Own Cellular Protein Factory
80beats: Researcher’s Artificial DNA Works Almost Like the Real Thing
DISCOVER: DISCOVER Dialogue: Geneticist Craig Venter

  • Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    I think PZ Myers said it best:

    It’s a very small cell that has been created — the mycoplasmas have the smallest genomes of any extant cells. It’s not much, but this is a breakthrough comparable to Wöhler’s synthesis of urea.

    My view of life is different than a cluster of atoms assembled one by one, as some posts seem to suggest as implicit definition. Nor do I think much of Collins goalpost move.

    The cell machinery has been inherited from the first cell on down. But it, as the genome, has been modified (through the genome). As Venter’s et al new genome metabolize and divide, which they do and better than the original in fact, they eventually replace the old machinery.

    Defining evolution as Larry Moran does, “a process that results in heritable changes in a population spread over many generations”, we can explicitly understand life as the process of evolution as observed in actual biological populations. In this view virus is life, and these cells will become fully “synthetic life” over time, as the new genome proteins replace the old metabolism. Actually it is a new man made mode of evolution by this definition, so one could possibly defend that it is life “as is”.

    The process view is, besides its relationship to physics et cetera, the most natural and inclusive view. We will likely never be able to assemble a cell from pieces only any more than we can build a modern computer from pieces only. Both of them will have to be booted up with their respective software, for very much the analogous reason – it is too difficult to get the initial state correct in hardware assembly. Yet we say that the computer is constructed (synthetic), so we should do the same elsewhere.

    It is mostly futile to predict where new technology will take us. But on the predictive horizon is the minimal genome that Venter et al assembled and “only” awaited confirmation on the method. The minimal genome and its relatives will inform us somewhat on the requirements for the first modern cell population and how it came to be. It may take us further back than modern compilations of the LUCA, if we are lucky. I can’t wait!

  • scribbler

    Few argue it isn’t life but only that it isn’t synthetic. You make a lucid and eloquent, if I may, case that it will be, at the very least.

    Quote: “Nobody can predict the new discoveries and surprises that the new technology will bring”

    Unquote: I can not help but believe that in a real sense of the word that no one can accurately predict the possible dangers involved here. I mean, look at the presidents in nature already of introducing species into areas in which they are not indiginous. Synthetic life holds the very real possibility of being indiginous absolutely no where on Earth, does it not?

    And if anyone can point me to a good IE spellchecker add on, I’d be indebted!

  • YS

    It is NOT an artificial life but a replacement of bacterial genome with a synthetic genome. The cell itself was not created here! Of course it is an achievement but it is not an artificial life.

  • SomeGuyCalledMark

    Cars are not synthetic either. They were just assembled from materials already found in nature.

    I know there’s a difference between car manufacture and what Venter has done, but I don’t know where the line is. Also, I don’t think it matters. He’s taken a significant step towards engineered lifeforms. The rest is semantics (and, I suspect, more than a little politics).

  • Brian Too

    Whatever happened to Venter’s project for paring down the genome to a minimal set necessary for life? When I first read this article, I thought this was the result. Then I read that it’s a goat bacterium with some minor changes to watermark it. Doesn’t sound the minimum genome project to me.

    So where is his lab-built, artificial bacterium with a minimal genome?

  • ROT

    I love the naysayers. They probably would’ve humbugged Sputnik too. This is an incredibly significant accomplishment and it will change the world. It’s 2010 and the future (the crazy sci-fi world that we’ve seen and read about for the past 50 years) has just launched. Stay tuned!

  • Walt French

    I think the closest analogue for most people is the Gutenberg printing press.

    We now have a mechanism for cranking out ANY genome desired. Never mind that its first application was a rather derivative work, just as Gutenberg produced a much less beautiful copy of the Bible than what was the previous standard for that book.

    Venter’s work obviously is NOT the equivalent to Gutenberg leaping forward a few centuries to create Ulysses or Invisible Man. Maybe we can see Venter’s work reaching forward a few years, just as Gutenberg’s work allowed the dissemination of Shakespeare in ways that wouldn’t have been possible without it.

  • scribbler

    Not to put too fine an edge on it but I think the closest analogue is Frankenstien’s monster…


  • Mark H

    I think it is no more than a Von Neumann machine. Quite the accomplishment but, as noted by other posters, not the creation of life itself.

  • Mike Conrad

    Brian, Venter originally did make a 580 kb Mycoplasma genetalium chromosome, but it was so slow growing that weeks long experiments became impractical along with other difficulties.

    Originally Venter thought he would need to focus on making as small a genome a possible.
    But DNA synthesis techniques advanced so rapidly (much because of his improvements) that he was able to make the more vigorous, but twice as large, 1 mb M. mycoides chromosome and put it in a M. capricolum cell (which is found in goats) and get a growing cell with the synthetic M. mycoides chromosome. Thus life was synthesized with an intermediate step that existed only in a computer!

    This will allow Venter to take out unnecessary genes to determine what is the minimum complement of genes needed for life, the “minimum genome”. Also, being able to make a complete chromosome will allow us to rigorously test if our ideas about what life actually needs are correct.

    I think there is a good comparison with Wohler’s synthesis of urea from ammonium cyanate.

    It should be noted that the ammonium ion Wohler used came from dried blood. There was no chemical synthesis of ammonia at that time.

    Similarly, there was a biological source for the four bases (A, C, G, and T) used to make the DNA precursors for Venter’s automated DNA synthesizer. And of course, Venter needed a preformed cell to add his synthetic chromosome. So both experiments begin with life before passing through a non-life stage. It was some years after Wohler’s experiment that vitalism was completely discarded.

  • Patrick M

    I am fascinated by this discovery. I anticipate unlimited possibilities with creating synthetically engineered life to serve humanity and preserve our ecosystem.

    I then consider the rapid evolutions that are being seen in lifeforms adapting to humanities effect on our planet.

    Consider this… Introduction of any life-form grown in a sterile and protected environment may, upon introduction to the natural environment, behave unexpectedly. We must be mindful of the possibility of damage to the natural balance of the ecosystem. While I am concerned with introduction of synth life to our ecology, I also consider waste effects from synthetic products and its effect on our ecosystem.

    We can create so much that benefits all of us. Can we control the negative directions that can occur from our creation?

    I can go on for ever! Please calm my nerves!

  • Robert Brown

    What I found interesting about this was that initially Venter had a typing error in his chemical DNA sequence on his computer and when sequence was tested Sythia didn’t come to life because of this typo error.

    Considering the shortest DNA sequence for the smallest bacteria known has around 400,000 chemical signatures and with Venter’s one typo error stopping his bacteria forming life, what is the chance of 400,000 chemical signatures forming randomly by chance if as Venter’s experiment shows, that one wrong input means it doesn’t come to life.

    We are also told that 500 million years was enough time for chance to take hold. There are 225 thousand microbiologists in the US alone, yet with all their intelligence and experiments since the discovery of DNA 50 years ago and with their combined brainpower versus chance over time, why have they not been able to make life instead of Synthia just being a copy of life.

  • pbaker

    Thomas Edison is not the ‘god of light’ but he is the inventor of the light bulb. edison manipulates electricity and elements like metal and gas and produced artificial light, which is now an application of engineering design to meet all our lighting wants and needs.

    Venter is the same. Just like a chef does not create food, they buy groceries (grown by farmers or caught by fisherman), slice and dice it , marinate it and cook it into delicious cuisine that meet goals of taste and texture.

    Venter has engineered a tiny creature. farmers manipulated the dna of animals and plants every day to achieve higher market value and demand.

    Venter deserves credit for being the first to use a cutting edge computer technology to engineer and dictate a new lifeform. Computer Potential for genetic engineering redefines our power for applying this technology to make creatures according to goals of our choosing.

    Dr. Baltimore as a Scientist fails to see that technology to engineer life from a computer alters a worldview many have, that we do not dicate what is born onto the earth. This does change religious and philosophical constraints globally.

    Maybe Baltimore thought Venter needed to be reminded that he is not a god , which I do agree Venter is not god of new creations, but inventor of synthetic lifeforms. It is what it is, one of many breakthroughs of mankind.

  • pbaker

    Baltimore points out a difference between ‘synthetic’ and ‘very slightly sythetic’ not pointing out that most everyone like me didn’t know that partially syntetic life was even technically possible. The power of the idea is what we celebrate in science. It is that conception that changes the world.

  • Tim

    A new strain of a bacteria that gives goats mastitis, just what we need. He couldn’t come up with one that eats a virus or cancer cells? I’m glad my life is half over so I don’t have to live through the plague.

  • Whatever Dude.

    Tim, The point is… with this “proven to work thesis” that (He couldn’t come up with one that eats a virus or cancer cells?) can be done….

  • http://None HF McDuffie

    I am a retired chemist, age 94.10 mo. This accomplishment appears to be the strongest yet against all faith-based religion. I would like to see responses by leading representatives of the major religions. Now we must learn how to establish universal morality codes that are not faith based.


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