Sunday, 30 May 2010

Synthetic life?

Craig Venter did not succeed in creating life from scratch. Michelangelo: Creation of Adam. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Joel Kontinen

During the past ten days or so, the popular media have been busy with their news of Craig Venter’s achievement. A typical front page title shouted: ”It's alive!”

Source criticism was one of the earliest victims of the enthusiasm spurred by the breakthrough. Few popular publications were able to see the forest for the trees.

What, then, did Venter and his research team achieve?

Venter and his colleagues examined the genome of a microbe called Mycoplasma mycoides and used it to build the genome of Mycoplasma mycoides in the laboratory. (In non-technical English this might perhaps be called plagiarism.) Then they removed the DNA of the microbe Mycoplasma capricolum and replaced it with the genome of M. mycoides.

In other words, they moved the content from one tiny container to another equally tiny container. Steve Jones, professor of genetics at University College London, had this to say:

The idea that this is 'playing God' is just daft. What he has done in genetic terms would be analogous to taking an Apple Mac programme and making it work on a PC – and then saying you have created a computer. It's not trivial, but it is utterly absurd the claims that are being made about it."

The media nonetheless had a field day, or perhaps two or three.

Venter’s achievement is by no means insignificant. It required years of hard work and intelligent design.

But it is a far cry from creating synthetic life.


Adams, Tim. 2010. Craig Venter: The dazzling showman of science. Observer (23 May)

Bland, Eric. 2010. It's alive! Artificial DNA controls life. MSNBC (20 May)