Venter’s ‘artifical’ life “interesting but not profound”

Controversial scientist Craig Venter grabbed the headlines last week when it was reported that his team of researchers had created “artifical” life.

But, as Dick Ahlstrom noted in Saturday’s Irish Times, several scientists [in Ireland] were not as enthusiastic.

“I think it has been exaggerated. He has a reputation for showmanship,” Prof Wolfe, professor of genome evolution, said yesterday.

“He hasn’t created life, he has mimicked life. It is a technical achievement to synthesise a piece of DNA that size,” he added. “It was an achievement of scale.”

Prof Wolfe likened it to replacing the operating system on a computer. He suggested that Dr Venter was stoking up the controversy surrounding the research. “He is very good at lining up ethicists and moralists to comment on what he has done.”

Prof Frank Barry, scientific director of NUI Galway’s Regenerative Medicine Institute who is deeply involved in genetic engineering in a medical context, said: “It was a small step not a big step.”

The most significant aspect of the research was the size of the genome constructed by Dr Venter, he said. “This is probably the biggest genome yet assembled. That is not the same as creating artificial life.” The ability to alter the genetic blueprint of organisms is already available, he said. “The insertion or deletion of genes already exists and is very efficient, even with human cells.” The research was “interesting but not profound”, he added.

On his blog BBC NI’s Will Crawley struck the middle ground with a good assessment of the science – including a link to the Science paper [pdf file] – as well as lining up some of those ethicists.

Other bioethics say, let’s all calm down here. Craig Venter and his scientists have essentially inserted a genome into a cell. It’s an important step forward in research, but it is not nearly an advance of the significance being claimed by the researchers. Gregory Kaebnik from the Hastings Center, an independent ethics institute, says, “What he’s managed to do is synthesise a genome much larger than any genome that’s been synthesised from scratch before. He said it’s changed his own views of what the concept of life is and how life works. I’m really not sure why it would have done that.” Kaebnik is a philosopher with a religion studies background and he is empirically under-impressed.

And I did like this description from Professor Steven Rose in a letter to The Guardian

By inserting a synthetic strand of DNA into a living bacterium, Craig Venter’s team has made an impressive technical advance with considerable technological and basic scientific potential (God 2.0, 21 May). But what they have emphatically not done is “create life”. DNA is a relatively inert molecule unless placed in the environment provided by a living cell.

Here’s a short Science Channel video with Craig Venter describing the process in straightforward terms

And, if The Grauniad’s US Presidential emails are to be believed, someone’s interested…

To: Craig Venter, J Craig Venter Institute <[email protected]> Subject: Creation of first synthetic lifeform — well done sir!

A quick note to say congratulations! Let me know if you want to borrow one of my speechwriters – they’re pretty good at the whole “standing on the threshold of history” thing. I also wanted to apologise: I understand you’ve been deluged with emails from Joe suggesting that if we fast-tracked the funding, you might be able to create a group of artificial Democratic senators to help push our legislation through. Or even Democratic voters, to help us out in the midterms! Believe me, that’s just Joe’s twisted sense of humour – please ignore him! I mean, unless you think you could actually do it. No, I’m kidding! Still, do let me know if you think you could. Warmly, Barack PS. I’m just joking of course! PPS. But obviously do get in touch if you think it might be viable.

[*Ahem* – Ed]