If the advance in applied biology is arguably incremental (albeit rather a dramatic increment), the implications for progress towards a more theoretical goal in pure biology could more reasonably be described as ground-breaking. Venter's declared aim for a decade or more has been to discover "which genes are essential for life and why." Perhaps surprisingly, the current state of such knowledge is really very scanty. Sequencing a whole genome is one thing, but understanding which of the identified genes are vital, and why, is a whole new problem. We have no real idea of what the majority of these sequences actually do. And (to quote Venter again) "nor is there any cell — and certainly not our synthetic cell — where the function of every gene is understood". The synthetic cell technique he has now successfully pioneered offers a radically new and powerful approach to solving this challenge.
But it is not the biology, pure or applied, of Venter's achievement that has commanded media attention. Establishing the irreducible core of genes necessary and sufficient for life, and doing so by creating synthetic life forms, touches on serious questions of ethics, philosophy and our identity. Venter himself has consistently called attention to these aspects of his work, demanding a wide ranging debate, though in the current instance he half-heartedly downplays his achievements, asserting: "We did not create life from scratch: we transformed existing life into new life."
Others disagree, Julian Savulescu, an Oxford Professor of something called Practical Ethics, is leading the charge: "Venter is creaking open the most profound door in humanity's history...He is going towards the role of a god." And certainly there is something unsettling in the idea that new life, a living, replicating, responsive and respiring thing, can be constructed just from information. No spark needed, no mystery, no supernatural animation, just sequences.
Venter's team may not really have created life in a test tube, but they have done something very close to it. In placing man-made DNA into a de-gened bacterial cell, they have made a new life form and, effectively, vivified a dead microbe. "Synthia", his scientists punningly nicknamed their organism, but "Lazarus" would have captured another aspect of the achievement. Ultimately, this research does ask serious questions of what we understand life itself to be, who might or might not have the right to make new forms of life and for what purpose. Even here, though, there are aspects that are only a matter of scale in their difference from what has previously been done. A simple bacterium into which a gene for insulin has been inserted might be profoundly useful medically, but is itself a unique and very partially artificial organism. "Co-designed by man (0.1 per cent) and God (99.9 per cent)" the 10-year-old label on these microbes might say. Venter is now seriously shifting these proportions, and bioethicists and the public need to catch up.