5 Implications of Venter's Synthetic Life Form

A microscopic image of the synthetic cells. AP

And Craig Venter said, “Let the lab bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let Mycoplasma mycoides multiply in the petri dish,” and he saw that it was good …

It’s easy to get carried away in the wake of Thursday’s announcement that Craig Venter & Co. have created what is in some sense the world’s first synthetic organism. Venter’s lab typed out the million letters of DNA that comprise the M. mycoides genome, had them translated into 1,000-letter chemical chunks, glued the chunks together using yeast and E. coli, and transplanted the result into the empty shell of a related bacterium (M. capricolum). Voilà: a cell “whose genetic heritage started in the computer,” in Venter’s words.

What is this thing? Is it, as The Wall Street Journal would have it, the harbinger of “a new era in biology,” a “turning point in the relationship between man and nature”? Is it a microscopic Frankenstein’s monster? Or is it just a cell with an effective PR team? It could be all these and more. Here are a few different ways of thinking about Venter’s announcement:

1. This is a really big deal.
In Nature, bioethicist Arthur Caplan says Venter et al.’s paper is “likely to prove as momentous to our view of ourselves and our place in the universe as the discoveries of Galileo, Copernicus, Darwin, and Einstein.” Elsewhere, a biological engineer from MIT is so bowled over that he uses the word “impressive” three times in four sentences. And, of course, Venter (who’s not known for modesty) is also impressed. He says the project “changes conceptually how I think about life.”

There is indeed a lot to admire here. Until now, scientists have been able to string together only about 1,000 DNA base pairs before their techniques stopped working. (NPR has a terrific explanation of how Venter’s lab jumped that hurdle and got to a million.) It’s painstaking work, writing the code for an artificial genome. A single typo can cause the entire system to stop functioning. At one point in Venter’s effort, this did happen—an inaccurate base pair stopped the whole project for three months. Venter’s team also managed to transplant the delicate synthesized DNA chain into the bacterial shell without breaking it, which is no mean feat.

2. No, it’s not.
Venter is a media darling, so you can expect a lot of hype around his papers. (Witness his press-friendly insertion of “a code that translates DNA into English letters with punctuation” into the new bacterium, spelling out “the names of the 46 researchers who helped with the project, quotations from James Joyce, physicist Richard Feynman and J. Robert Oppenheimer, and a URL that anyone who deciphers the code can e-mail.”)

His claims in yesterday’s coverage are somewhat inflated. This isn’t exactly the first synthetic genome. That award goes to the much smaller polio virus synthesized by Eckard Wimmer eight years ago. And there’s some philosophical debate about whether Venter’s creation is really synthetic, given that he didn’t write the new bacterium’s code from scratch. He took an existing species’ code and tweaked it, adding those snazzy quotations and deleting 14 genes that might make the bacterium pathogenic. That’s why David Baltimore, the pioneering Caltech geneticist, told The New York Times that “Craig has somewhat overplayed the importance of this” and that Venter had “not created life, only mimicked it.” The equally prominent geneticist George Church provides more perspective in Nature: “Printing out a copy of an ancient text isn’t the same as understanding the language.” And as The Washington Post smartly notes, Venter provided the genes but not the context for them: “The recipient cell was equipped by nature and billions of years of evolution to make sense of the genes and turn them on.”

3. This is the first step toward a new future.
The goal of “synthetic biology” isn’t to encode the names of literati and physicists into cells—it’s to encode much more valuable information, such as the instructions for manufacturing artificial fuels and foods. In other words, Venter’s man-made bacterium doesn’t secrete anything useful, but other bacteria might in the future. The next step for Venter is doing similar work with algae: an avid seafarer, he has made a serious study of the marine organisms and hopes to use them to make biofuels. (He’s not the only one by far.) Thursday’s announcement is a necessary step on that path, a sort of “demonstration project,” as the WSJ puts it.

4. This is the first stepof 100toward a new future.
It’s one thing to read and write the code for various genes. But understanding what those genes do, and how they interact with each other, is a much more daunting task. Robert Klitzman, a bioethicist at Columbia University, says Venter is a little like Benjamin Franklin going out into a storm with a kite and a key to channel electricity from lightning. “Imagine if Franklin had made his discovery and then said, ‘As a result of this, you’ll be able to call up a person anywhere in the world from a little box in your pocket,’ ” he says. “That would have been correct. But it took several hundred years to get from the kite to the cell phone. [With Venter’s announcement], we have the kite. That’s great. But he’s saying we’ll have the cell phone any day now.”

5. This is a bioethical Pandora’s box.
Venter’s work doesn’t bring up any new ethical concerns, but it sure has some people worried about the old ones that have dogged genetic engineering for decades. Could a man-made bacterium mutate? (Yes, very easily.) Could it escape from the lab, sci-fi style? (If history is any guide, yes.) How are governments supposed to regulate this kind of work? Can they provide enough oversight to prevent people from abusing science in the service of bioterrorism? Will they provide too much oversight and stifle research in the process? And hey, isn’t there a lot of money at stake here? (Yes, yes, yes.)

Venter hopes to patent his creation, but given that the taxpayers paid to lay the groundwork for it, should they see some returns, too? “We’re getting into the questions of who should own life,” says Klitzman. “Should we be able to patent everything we can invent? Should it just be that private entrepreneurs get all the profit, or should there be some sense of giving back to society?” No one has figured out the answers to any of these questions yet. So if you think you’ve already heard a lot about the first artificial life form, just wait.