Artificial Life Has Been Created

[Moved and adapted from]

I’m guessing here. I think it has been created over the last few months but the announcement is delayed for obvious reasons … nobody wants the equivilant of “Cold Fusion” tacked to your resume. Especially if you are Craig Venter, who is already a bit controversial.

According to reports, Venter is prepared to announce the animation of dead tissue, as it were, as early as some time in the next 48 hours, but possibly several days down the line.

Venter, who worked on the Human Genome Project, is quoted as saying that creating artificial life would be: “a very important philosophical step in the history of our species. We are going from reading our genetic code to the ability to write it. That gives us the hypothetical ability to do things never contemplated before”

What is known is that Venter assembled a team headed by Hamilton Smith (Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 1978), and including some 20 individuals. They have created a synthetic chromosome with 381 genes and 580,000 base pairs, entirely from basic laboratory chemicals. The genome of this chromosome is modeled after a bacterium (Mycoplasma genitalium). Conveniently, and intelligently, the team has marked the genes on this chromosome, presumably so we can find them later when we need to drive it into the swamp with torches and pitchforks, should things get out of hand.

The team has also previously transplanted the chromosome of one bacterium into another, with the newly transplanted chromosome “taking over” as the genome for the recipient cell. Now, according to the report in The Guardian, all they need to do is to take the artificially created chromosome and do the same thing with that … put it in a bacterium, and presto, they’ve got artificial life.

Or, in my view, if it works, they’ve got one very important step in the direction of creating artificial life. A chromosome is not alive. A cell is alive, and there are many very important parts of a cell that are not generated by the DNA, but rather, are copied directly during cell division. They are not making a cell from common laboratory chemicals, they are making a chromosome and getting a cell that is already alive to accept it at “Fearless Leader.”

Also, they are using the genome of an existing bacterium. You can’t say “I’ve created a car from scratch” by getting the Chilton’s Guide for a 1977 Mustang, and then doing a really good job of building four fifths of a 1977 mustang from stuff laying around in your garage (assuming you are Jay Leno). (You should see Jay Leno’s garage. It’s the size of a medium size airplane hanger. It is full of old cars, parts, and tools, and he powers it with a restored electrical generator that runs on soybeans or something similar.) (The genome in their artificial chromosome has about four-fifths of the original “wild” bacterial genome. Why? I have no idea. I can’t imagine a limit on size of artificial genome that would require this. Maybe that is all their pen-drives would hold or something.) What you did with the Chilton’s Guide was to build a previously existing Mustang from scratch, and good for you, but someone else (a team of people, actually) created the Mustang. If you don’t believe me, try building a bunch of Mustangs from scratch, and then try selling them as “Mustang” and see what happens to you when you get sued. You will lose, because you did not “create it” … In addition, that design — the Mustang — was based on designs for other, previously existing cars, and thus the Mustang is the product of a combination of intelligent design that always goes into designing cars (except in the case of the Chevy Chevette) and Darwinian processes both in the machine shop and the market place. For the cell, of course, there is not an intelligent designer involved, so it took way longer and the design is, well, not as intelligent.

So it is not that I’m not impressed with the concept of what this team may be announcing any time now. But they have not created life. What they’ve done is to mimic the process of DNA replication, which is one part of life. The rest of it … including cell division, organelle replication, (I quickly add: Organelle replication is a “eukaryotic” …if I may use that term… function. Bacteria do not really do this … unless you count a cell membrane and ER as organelles … but Eukaryotes do. But, bacteria are “alive” so we’ll not quibble too much about this side ofit.) and DNA expression, is being done by pre-existing structures that this team did not create.

So, this is a little like getting a 1977 Mustang with several parts missing, and a Chilton’s manual for a 1977 Mustang, and replicating … using from stuff in Jay Leno’s garage … the necessary parts to turn the partial Mustang into a functioning Mustang … and then taking credit for “creating an artificial Mustang.”

But, it will be interesting to see how this plays out.

[Hat Tip: Joe. Source: The Guardian]


  1. #1 Rob the Lurker FCD BMWCCA
    November 5, 2007

    The Chilton’s doesn’t go indepth enough to rebuild an entire vehicle. You’re better off with the Bentley guide — it costs more, but it’s more detailed.

  2. #2 Paul Crowley
    November 5, 2007

    So long as some part of the process involves closing a great big old-fashioned knife switch I’m happy, though for maximum points this should take place during a thunderstorm.

  3. #3 Torbj�rn Larsson, OM
    November 5, 2007

    If Wikipedia is correct, they use the same amount of base pairs as the wild type in spite of minimizing the functionality. (I.e. they have inserted a lot of non-functional DNA.)

    I assume it maximizes the chance of successful activation of the synthetic genome, comparison with the wild type and facilitate later industrial use as IIRC Venter has discussed. But it would be fun when they start messing with the whole package.

  4. #4 Brian
    December 6, 2010

    We really should resolve what people mean by “create”. I consider going from never-alive molecules to bacteria creating life, even if it copied an existing model. As a test for whether or not this is normal usage, “The eunuch scientist created a human baby in the laboratory” makes sense.

    Note that independent invention is not a defense under U.S. patent law. If you had never seen a Mustang nor read the manual and by chance turned metal into copies of one, you still couldn’t market your creations as “Mustangs” nor as “Guzzlermobiles”.

  5. #5 Greg Laden
    December 6, 2010

    Gadfly [58]: “Greg, it looks like you’re defending bad science, not just fluffery:”

    Excuse me?

    “You really want to keep up this strong of a defense? As a lawyer might say, it potentially “goes to credibility.””

    You’ve cited a nice blog post that raises valid questions about the research. It raises no questions about my blog post, which uses the research at hand as a suggestive foil to discuss other issues that you have ignored, presumably because you did not read my post (the original post, not this one).

    I am not “defending” anything. I am stating that the whinging and hand wringing about NASA’s poor treatment of this news story is almost the same as it was when the Ida story came out, and the two presentations were so vastly different that I suspect the complaining is a cultural feature of the science blogosphere rather than a valid citique. I’ve asked for specific critiques of the NASA press release and have received one, which makes a good suggestion but hardly demonstrates that NASA lied or cheated or flim flamed.

    You, on the other hand, are quickly making it onto my list.

  6. #6 Greg Laden
    December 6, 2010

    Wow, I put that comment on the wrong post! Coffee shortage, I think ..

    Yeah, Brian, that is always a problem, and the same problem may well relate to the origins of life as well. If you went back to the days of the primordial, you might need a pretty nuanced field guide to tell the players .

    Any natural construct that is almost like life is going to (probably) concentrate nutrients, which, if there is “real” life, something will adapt (and/or arrive on the scene) to eat. There is probably life originating among the dust bunnies even as we speak, but getting hammered by the mites before it is fully “created”!!!