Thursday, May 20, 2010

Review: Newspapers state Dr. Venter created synthetic life for the first time, but other scientists disagree


Telegraph recently published an article with a sub-headline, "Artificial life has been created in a laboratory for the first time by a maverick scientist." This maverick scientist is none other than Dr. Craig Venter, a scientist turned successful entrepreneur, known for his role as one of the first scientists to successfully map out the human genome.

His team's most recent work about "synthetic life" has been published in the journal Science. The article entitled, "Synthetic Genome Brings New Life to Bacterium", briefly describes how Venter's team was able to infuse genetic code artificially. The R&D price tag? About $40 million.

To date, there has never been any successful attempts to create a cell from scratch. The cell theory has been a basic foundation of biology: living cells come from other living cells.

I was curious to see if scientists were able to break this theory apart. It would be a game changer! Humanity creating life from basic elements would be more than just genetic engineering, it would mean that humanity is a creator of life, or to a degree, "playing god".

A careful look
While many journalists are caught up in the idea that mankind just created new life, a careful look at the research shows it was not a new creation of life but rather a new method of genetic engineering.

To summarize in layman's terms, Dr. Venter's team was able to strip a bacterial cell's DNA and infuse another set of that they've developed. After grueling weeks, months, and years of research, they finally had a breakthrough on one weekend: their Frankenstein bacteria (M. capricolum) was able to reproduce.

I don't want to take away anything from this achievement, this is a great example of a new method of genetic engineering. However, it falls short of creating life synthetically as described by Telegraph and other news outlets, because the team was still not able to create life from scratch, but rather they had to use cells that were already alive.

Here's a quote from Science that speculative copy editors and journalists seem to have purposely missed:
"That's a pretty amazing accomplishment," says Anthony Forster, a molecular biologist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Still, he and others emphasize that this work didn't create a truly synthetic life form, because the genome was put into an existing cell.

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