There was quite a splash in the media in May concerning Craig Venter’s claims to have made a synthetic cell.
However, the media have not elucidated exactly what this ‘synthetic’ means, and Venter himself, in a blaze of self-promotion, used blatantly misleading language. He spoke of his ‘creation’ as “the first self-replicating species we’ve had on the planet whose parent is a computer”, and of its genome having been synthesized “by a machine” entirely from “four bottles of chemicals” and its being “booted up” in a host organism.
Arthur Caplan, Professor of Bioethics, University of Pennsylvania was impressed and thought this one of the most important scientific achievements ever:
All…deeply entrenched metaphysical views are cast into doubt by the demonstration that life can be created from non-living parts, albeit those harvested from a cell. Venter’s achievement would seem to extinguish the argument that life requires a special force or power to exist. In my view, this makes it one of the most important scientific achievements in the history of mankind.
And Julian Savulescu, professor of practical ethics at Oxford University, would like to nominate Venter as the Demiurge:
Venter is creaking open the most profound door in humanity’s history, potentially peeking into its destiny. He is not merely copying life artificially…or modifying it radically by genetic engineering. He is going towards the role of a god: creating artificial life that could never have existed naturally.
As we will see, these ethicists have clearly misunderstood what Venter has achieved. More sane soundings have come from those who are expert in bioengineering, for example Jim Collins, Professor of biomedical engineering, Boston University:
Relax — media reports hyping this as a significant, alarming step forward in the creation of artificial forms of life can be discounted. The work reported by Venter and his colleagues is an important advance in our ability to re-engineer organisms; it does not represent the making of new life from scratch. The microorganism reported by the Venter team is synthetic in the sense that its DNA is synthesized, not in that a new life form has been created. Its genome is a stitched-together copy of the DNA of an organism that exists in nature, with a few small tweaks thrown in…Frankly, scientists do not know enough about biology to create life…Although some of us in synthetic biology may have delusions of grandeur, our goals are much more modest.
We will investigate what Venter has done, but we must be clear that although what he has done was technologically advanced, it amounts to no more than tinkering with existing life.