Life, Synthia, But Not as we Know It

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…)

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.

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.

An autumn note

“For many, the end of this uneasy year cannot come quickly enough”

An ordinary killing

Ian Cobain’s book uses the killing of Millar McAllister to paint a meticulous portrait of the Troubles

Greater—not wiser

John Mullan elucidates the genius of Charles Dickens