Craig Venter and colleagues have achieved a remarkable milestone: they designed a genome, and brought it to life. More specifically, they’ve synthesized a chromosome consisting of over a million DNA base pairs, and implanted it in a bacterial cell to replace the cell’s original genome. That cell then reproduced, giving birth to offspring that only had the synthetic genome. See the Venter Institute press release, discussion in Nature (pdf), more discussion at Edge, and some background from Carl Zimmer. Update: and here is the paper.
Who knows exactly what this means as yet — but it’s important! You can argue if you like about whether it’s really “artificial life” — that argument has already started, and already seems boring. There are also speculations about designing microorganisms to help us solve problems like global warming or (let’s say) massive oil spills. Not completely crazy speculations, either. But there’s a long way to go before anything like that is coming off a biological assembly line. And eventually we’ll be going much further than that, beyond designer microorganisms into much weirder terrain. This isn’t a culmination, it’s just a start.