Scientists playing God. Again. How many times has this most hackneyed of headlines been used? Since Darwin? Or Linnaeus, the "second Adam", and who after all called his followers "apostles" — though there weren't many newspapers in the 18th century. Now they're at it once more, those scientists and those headline writers, scientists playing God again. (Now if it were the sports pages, and this were a cricket match...)
Synthia's DNA — or should that be Lazarus's?
Craig Venter, genetic entrepreneur and A-list science celeb, has "created a new life form". "God II" proclaimed one broadsheet in an unhappy variant of our favourite headline. So what's it about this time?
Venter's work, like that of H. G. Wells's Dr Moreau, is conducted well outside the science mainstream, in neither university nor research academy but in independent and doubtless highly secure commercial laboratories. This is where they too play with the very stuff of life. His experiments are in some ways a microscopic or molecular version of Moreau's — putting together bits of different organisms to make something new, and re-animating dead life forms.
Venter has taken a simple bacterium and isolated and sequenced its entire DNA: its whole genome or total complement of genes. Nothing outlandish or novel there — after all, the infinitely more complex whole human genome was sequenced more than a decade ago, not least through Venter's own efforts. There are now machines that will make DNA sequences to order, so the next step, re-synthesising this bacterium's whole genome was also hardly a cosmic moment, even when done to include a number of specific DNA changes, inserting sequences not ordinarily seen in this or any other bacterium, so that the new genome so made becomes unlike that of any known organism. But if, as Venter's scientists then did, this novel genomic DNA is then inserted into a different bacterium whose own DNA has been extracted, and if the heart (as it were) of that gutted bacterium starts to beat again — then, driven and defined by its unique and designed DNA, a new life form has, arguably, been created.
How scientifically or technologically exciting is this? Noteworthy, a clever trick and certainly an achievement of scale, given the size of DNA needing to be synthesised, and the required all but perfect accuracy, but, some would say, no more than this. It's a bit like a new type of cake that uses known ingredients, perhaps including several pounds of saffron, and is put together in a novel way (novel and expensive: Venter's team spent about $40 million to create the synthetic cell).
Venter tries to excite our enthusiasm by describing how extending and extrapolating this technique will allow us to make —design — new organisms that can produce any substance we like or need: drugs, vitamins, proteins, vaccines, etc in factory quantities. This could be true, but it is an economical truth. We can and do use bacteria this way already, in the pharmaceutical and agricultural industries and it's called genetic engineering. I remember describing how scientists agreed this was now imminent in a somewhat unoriginal BSc essay in 1979. Inserting genes into bacteria or plants, to make them produce something otherwise unknown to them, ranging from insulin to insecticide-resistance, is old hat. So even the new holy grail of such research, making micro-organisms that can produce fuel from carbon dioxide (the reason, presumably, why BP sits on the board and Exxon has invested $600m in Venter's work), could conceivably be achieved using the "old genetics", conventional GM technology. That said, undoubtedly the opportunities for playing with much larger segments of DNA could hugely increase both pace and scale of our ability to design specific functions into organisms.