Believe it or not, science has now claimed to have made “synthetic life.” Life created from non-living substances. J Craig Venter and colleagues, after a decade of work, produced a man-made version of the entire DNA content (genome) of a bacteria (adding in a couple of harmless “watermarks” to track it) and inserted it into the shell of another bacteria after removing its DNA. And, lo and behold, the artificial genome starting making proteins and the man-made bacteria began to replicate.
You may remember J. Craig Venter as the man in corporate biotech a decade back who challenged the U.S. government in a race to completely encode the entire human genome. The Human Genome Project was completed in 2003 and jointly announced. This is a beautiful thing but Venter wanted to “own” and patent the human genome and charge others for using it as a resource whereas the U.S. government insisted that it be made publicly available, which it is.
Is this really synthetic life? No. Essentially, Venter performed the equivalent of gutting a computer and then entirely reprogramming it. Is this an important scientific achievement? Absolutely, a tour de force, since technology has been limiting this work for years. Recently, however, there has been a 100-fold increase in the length of genetic material that can be manufactured from raw chemicals in the lab. Without a doubt, science has been dreaming about this kind of work for three decades and recombinant DNA technology is an early product of this movement.
So, an entirely “artificial cell” was not produced by Venter, as the control station was man-made, but the rest of the cell was not. My only hope is that this is not just another “pleather” (plastic and leather) product in our lives. As Lily Tomlin said: “[even] vinyl leopard skin is becoming an endangered synthetic.” On the contrary, this work may have advance science sufficiently to begin the manufacture of designer cells, good or bad, that can clean up oil spills, dynamite and waste water, dispose of nuclear waste and deliver antibiotics, chemotherapy, testosterone or Viagra to hard to reach but important areas of the body.