An Engineer in Wonderland – Artificial life, but not as we’ll know it

Dr Craig Venter claims to have made a synthetic bacterial cell.  

However, as far as I can tell – and I am sorry for any errors here – he has:

Read the DNA of an existing bacteria – Mycoplasma mycoides
Synthesised that DNA, adding some sections to aid assembly
Inserted the synthetic DNA into a bacteria whose own DNA had been removed
Persuaded the resulting cell or cells to multiply

Every step is amazing and valuable, but I do feel that it falls short of making artificial life.

To trivialise it, it is a bit like taking all of the salt out of a cell, then replacing it with some that you made yourself from sodium and chlorine.

To claim a synthetic bacterial cell, I think you would need to have one, or preferably both, of the following:

Design the DNA from scratch, then put it into a cell.

Put copied DNA into a synthetic cell.

Maybe Dr Venter has been the victim of poor reporting, which I hope I am not contributing to.

Or maybe he has a touch of the showman about him.

Still, well done Dr Venter, you are laying foundations for artificial life.

The next step for Ventner is to whittle life down to its essence.

“With this successful proof of principle, the group will now work on creating a minimal genome, which has been a goal since 1995. They will do this by whittling away at the synthetic genome and repeating transplantation experiments until no more genes can be disrupted and the genome is as small as possible. This minimal cell will be a platform for analyzing the function of every essential gene in a cell,” said his institute.  

‘Alice’

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Tags: Alice, DNA, Engineer in Wonderland, Venter

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3 Comments

  1. 'Alice'
    May 27, 2010 15:16

    Thanks Modibund and Mr Hill.
    I heard one of Dr Venter’s old advisories suggesting that the overstatements are an attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of the US patent office and get sweeping patents.
    Lets hope, what ever the truth of the matter, over-broad patents are not awarded.
    ‘Alice’

  2. Martin Hill
    May 26, 2010 10:42

    Think back a decade (or five) to the old card-reading computers. What Ventner has done is create a new stack of cards containing something like the original program and fed it into the computer. Knowing the rules, you can create the program on cards using a little knife or a proper card punch – as simple or sophisticated as you like – thats the easy bit. But he hasn’t made the computer, which requires other, vastly more complex, skills. As far as I can tell, nobody is anywhere near creating even the simplest bits of the workings of a cell, let alone a co-ordinated, functional whole. I suspect that bit is quite some years away.

  3. Moribund
    May 24, 2010 03:27

    Or a more human analogy- take the brain out of one’s head, replace it with its mechanical counterpart that ONLY supports life of the BODY (manufacture sperm for instance) and then claim you have created an artificial life form :-)

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