What do these three quotations have in common? Hint: it lives in a petri dish.
“To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, and to recreate life out of life.” — James Joyce
“What I cannot build, I cannot understand.” — Richard Feynman
“See things not as they are, but as they might be.” — from American Prometheus, a biography of the nuclear physicist Robert Oppenheimer
Although James Joyce could never have imagined it, his words — and those of Feynman and Oppenheimer, too — are no longer relegated to library stacks, but instead live on inside an unlikely host: the world’s first synthetic organism. Yes, in boggling science news, Craig Venter, famous for mapping the human genome in 2001, revealed Thursday that he and his team at Synthetic Genomics have created what they say is the first instance of truly synthetic life.
To be fair, this statement isn’t exactly right. Venter’s team didn’t whip up an organism from nothing. What they did is transcribe into a computer the million letters of DNA comprising an existing genome (M. mycoides), translated that into chemical chunks which were glued together with yeast and E. coli, and then transplanted this witches’ brew into another, empty bacterium. It lived. The result is impressive: in Venter’s words, “the first self-replicating species that we’ve had on his planet whose parent is a computer.” Additionally, in a nice PR swoop designed (I imagine) to excite people like me, they embedded into this synthetic creature the above series of arty quotations, the names of its creators, and an email address (“the first species to have its own website encoded in its genetic code,” Venter excitedly proclaims).
There is some debate as to whether or not this announcement is actually a Big Deal, due to the aforementioned not-actually-from-nothing sticking point, but largely it’s considered significant. How significant, time will undoubtedly tell, and probably not at all how we might expect it to. Venter hopes to patent synthetic cells and use them for various altruistic purposes such as converting carbon dioxide into fuel, or creating new vaccines for treating disease. Paranoid detractors, however, have already gone into the requisite paroxysms of ethical stress: could a synthetic organism escape from the lab? How could this technology be used for evil? Still yet others claim that despite being marvelous work, the results couldn’t honestly be called “new life.”
Which is perhaps reassuring, as the idea of a creature born entirely from scratch still strikes most of us with Frankensteinean horror. Venter himself does little to dissuade these fears, even telling NPR that “we decided that [by] writing new biological software and creating new species, we could create new species to do what we want them to do, not what they evolved to do.” Yikes. Regardless of what you think of Venter and his work, however, it’s hard to contest that what the heads call “wet” AI — synthetic biology — is now on its way. What we have now is yeast, code, “four bottles of chemicals,” and a dubious organism, this tinker-toy of sophisticated biochemistry, but it’s literally impossible to tell now what such a hodge-podge of chemicals and computer language might lead to in the future.
Life seems so much more comprehensible — to biologists, perhaps maddeningly within reach — when you get down to the genomic level than it does in its larger, holistic sense. We’ve just begun to tap into the tantalizing secrets of the biological kingdom, and some may feel that the rest lie just beyond our reach. Perhaps we can fully decode, then emulate and synthesize life; and how better to learn than by imitation? Like the Feynman quote nestled into Venter’s organism, what we cannot build, we cannot understand.
Venter’s team has made synthetic life out of non-life, which is a marvel — but what does that actually mean? Is this simply semantic life or is it Life, capital-L, the ineffable stuff that we are all made of, the thing we seek so avidly in the darkest crevasses of our planet and in the void of space? Paul Davies, in his excellent new book The Eerie Silence, notes that:
“Quite obviously it is possible to make life in the lab — all you have to do is string together the right molecules in the right way. There is nothing miraculous about it; any difficulty is entirely technical and a matter of garnering sufficient resources; with enough time, money and effort, it could clearly be done [ed: and has been — Davies’ book came out right before Venter’s announcement]. But it won’t cast much light on how widespread life is in the universe. If it turned out that there were very many ways to make life in the lab, and not too many carefully controlled steps needed to ‘boot it up,’ it would shorten the odds in favour of the cosmic imperative. But creating a totally synthetic organism wouldn’t on its own prove that life is ubiquitous.“
I think it’s safe to say at this point that the weird bacterium chilling in Venter’s petri dish isn’t quite big-L life as it is technical life, something which functions on a chemical level without shattering anyone’s worldview, pushing the ethical boundaries of science, or proving anything definitive about life’s inherent qualities. Still — can you fault me? — I hope it’s warm and happy.