The Creation of Artificial Life

Craig Venter: Man God?

A scientific team led by Dr. Craig Venter of the J Craig Venter Institute in Maryland and California has succeeded in developing the first synthetic living cell. The scientific landmark used cutting-edge technology over fifteen years to construct a bacterium’s ‘genetic programming’ from an off-the-shelf DNA package. This was then transplanted into a yeast cell to promote growth and after several more processes, finally transplanted into a recipient cell which had its own DNA removed. The new cell divided over a billion times under its own programming to become new life.

Venter has been touting the synthetic life form, dubbed “Synthia”, as a near-panacea for most of the world’s ills, perhaps able to produce medicines, fuels, clean water, new foods, and absorb greenhouse gases. Will this be the start of a new biological revolution? Venter hopes so, but his critics are many, not appeased by the claims that Synthia will cure the world and also because Venter’s team received $40 million in funding from drug companies, oil companies, and the US Department of Energy, fuelling suspicions about commercial agendas ruling over humanitarian interests.

Fears that military or rogue elements could create their own synthetic organisms for use a biological weapons, have been countered by Venter with the fact that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a Washington defence think tank, reported that there was only a small occurrence of this happening.

Dr Helen Wallace from Genewatch UK, which monitors genetic technologies, stated her fears that new organisms released into the environment to clean up pollution would be akin to adding new pollution. She has called for new safety evaluations against misuse and abuse by the military and terrorists. However, it has been noted that the synthetic organism would not be able to survive outside of the environment created for it, thus avoiding Prince Charles’ once fabled fears of a global ‘grey goo’ takeover. Venter has already begun discussions regarding new biological and ethical regulations and accountability to prevent misuse of the technology.

Meanwhile, University of Cambridge geneticist Dr Gos Micklem admitted that cheaper, established methods for genetic engineering already exist and Synthia would not necessarily supersede these techniques. Likewise, others have noted that GM foods were also thought to be the next best thing, but have failed, due to resistance from the public. Cloning has also failed the public test, which has moratoriums on its development in many countries. This new bio-tech could yet fall by the wayside. The public do not like the idea of life being manipulated, even for their own good. Time will tell if the results of Venter’s work will overcome that resistance.

So is Venter playing God? No, the synthetic life form was not created from scratch. The DNA had existed before, but it and its host cell had been manipulated, before Synthia could live. But even if Venter had created new life from nothing, it would still be a far cry from creating an animal or a human being. Venter’s achievement is on the bottommost rung of being a God. He has a long way to catch up. But whether the experimentation continues, the latest bio-genie is out of the bottle and everyone will be wishing that Synthia is a gift and not a curse.