Is Craig Venter’s Synthetic Cell Really Life?

Bioethicist Gregory Kaebnick, Ph.D., has an interesting take on the recently announced synthetic cell created by a team of researchers led by J. Craig Venter at the J. Craig Venter Instititute (JVCI). In a recent article in The Scientist entitled Is the “Synthetic Cell” about Life?, Kaebnick writes:

…the technical accomplishment is not quite what the JCVI press release claimed. It’s hard to see this as a synthetic species, or a synthetic organism, or a synthetic cell; it’s a synthetic genome of Mycoplasma mycoides, which is familiar enough. David Baltimore was closer to the truth when he told the New York Times that the researchers had not created life so much as mimicked it. It might be still more accurate to say that the researchers mimicked one part and borrowed the rest.

The explanation from the Venter camp is that the genome took over the cell, and since the genome is synthetic, therefore the cell is synthetic. But this assumes a strictly top-down control structure that some biologists now question. Why not say instead that the genome and the cell managed to work out their differences and collaborate, or even that the cell adopted the genome (and its identity)? Do we know enough to say which metaphor is most accurate?

Kaebnick raises an interesting point: is this synthetic cell life? If we grant that it is, what are the implications for either evolution or ID, if any? My initial thought is that what Venter et.al created is not life. In that respect, I think David Baltimore got it right in the above quote.

Still, its worth considering, is this life? If so, why? And, what are the implications for ID and/or evolution. Its hard to see how this helps evolution in that design is everywhere in the experiment. Indeed, if this cell does qualify as life, then it is clearly purposely, intelligently designed life.

I’d be interested in what the readers and posters here on UD think about all this.

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13 Responses to Is Craig Venter’s Synthetic Cell Really Life?

  1. 1

    Not sure why there would be any hesitation to call it life if it’s working.

    I would actually be more interested in attempts to do this that fail. Did Venter publish anything about previous failures? It would be more interesting to me if a genome was put into a cell and it died, or got screwed up somehow. That sort of thing would be evidence against what you call the “top-down control structure”. It would show that a genome cannot just take over a cell.

    But Venter is not interested in questions like that. He’s interested in making a name for himself.

  2. Dr. Venter is a plagerist. Biologists don’t even know what many of the genes in the most primitive of archaea are, so how could Dr. Venter have created new genes that do the same thing. He put in a bit of his own DNA. Specifically markers that spell out a few people’s names. I doubt if he put in ANY functional DNA.

    He took major sections of nature-made DNA and copied it to create his own DNA sequence. Is his cell “alive”? Sure. Did he make it? That’s as stretch!

  3. Whether it is life or not, it is intelligently designed.

    Apart from the testimony/evidence presented by the designer, is the design detectable? That is the question that interests me most. Not whether it is life or not (which is certainly a relavent question as well), but whether the design aspects are detectable.

    I would think that whether one believes in Intelligent Design or Evolution, that we can all acknowledge that mankind is now play a participatory role in modifying pre-existing organisms. I think it would be of interest to all parties to be able to detect such participatory design. But is anyone actively interested in this idea?

  4. Such distortions of truth are simply the byproduct of unconstrained human pride.

  5. The almost perfect anaology that is operative here is that of computer programming.

    Since it took Venter “years” to accomplish his feat, this must have certainly included a lot of trial and error work. We already know that very large segments of “highly conserved ‘junk-DNA’” can be entirely eliminated from a mouse embryo and normal development, and normal mice, ensue. So limited manual manipulation of a genome will surely, at some point, admit of a ‘successful’ manipulation. It’s along these lines that we should understand what’s been done.

    It seems to me that all Venter has accomplished here is to have ‘designed’ a ‘program’ that the ‘computer’ (cell) can recognize and implement (compiler function). His work, then, clearly demonstrates the cell to be an information-processing system. That such a system allows itself of a contrived (but, of course, contrived in unessential ways) input, only reaffirms the already obvious understanding of organic life as that of a highly complicated information processing system that operates in ways similar to present day computers. Hence, given that computers are known to be ‘designed’, Venter’s work serves to link the operational system of a cell to that of a known ‘designed system’.

    And, of course, this also undermines the ridiculous argument so frequently made by Darwinists: viz., to be able to manipulate an operational cell in a meaningful, but artificial way, means that we have some understanding of ‘how’ a cell operates; thus, how can it be argued that “we don’t know the Designer, so how can we know anything about his designs?”

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  7. Pardon my more confusing lines in my above post, i meant to say that this is a great site in the very first site. and as to the prophecies they are broadcast live before the events they predict come to pass. the accuracy and precision of this prophecies is really something to marvel at. what do the brainiacs of this site think about all that I have brought to the table.

  8. Just testing whether I can make comments.

    Pls excuse the junk mail.

  9. More On Venter’s New “Life Form”,
    Plain Ignorance

    “Is the “Synthetic Cell” about Life?”
    A bioethicist explores the soul of Venter’s new life form and of his experiment
    http://www.the-scientist.com/a.....lay/57523/

    - “Heralded as the moment that science finally took the magic out of life.”
    * What magic is there in life? All life forms are mass formats comprising constrained energy. They ingest energy in order to survive as long as possible, to postpone their own conversion to energy that fuels the ongoing cosmic expansion. Where/what is the magic? Replication?

    - Venter has said that his achievement has changed the definition of life.
    * IMO my suggestion of the nature of life mass format is THE presently most updated scientific conception. I wonder what Venter’s definitions of life are for the prior and after the “Synthetic Cell”.

    A cell is a construction comprising resident life primal RNA genes and a variety of organs evolved by them. Archaic RNA genes were independent bare floating organisms, energized by direct solar radiation. Cells, cellular membranes, including the outer membrane, are organs evolved by the resident RNA genes. Genomes, DNA or RNA, are likewise functional organs evolved by the resident RNA genes.

    Life is, by our sensory conception, a virtual reality affair. Religion and “spiritualty” are virtual reality tools for going through life. The purpose of our life is ours to formulate and set. It derives solely from our cognition, which is a biologic entity.

    Dov Henis
    (Comments From The 22nd Century)
    03.2010 Updated Life Manifest
    http://www.the-scientist.com/c......page#5065
    Cosmic Evolution Simplified
    http://www.the-scientist.com/c......page#4427
    Gravity Is The Monotheism Of The Cosmos
    http://www.the-scientist.com/c......page#4887
    EOTOE, Embarrassingly obvious TOE, expanding the horizon beyond Darwin And Einstein
    http://www.molecularfossils.co.....ersal.html

  10. roundsquare – what does some TV miracle healer have to do with this discussion thread? Please keep to the topic.

  11. I have to disagree with Pav on your interpretation of truncated mouse genome study as resulting in “normal mice”. I’m not saying that you may not be right, but I am saying that all the data is not in yet. If you read what was actually said in fine print, all they really knew was that the mice were alive.

    The authors admitted that they could not know if there were negative side effects since they were not tested for them. They were also well fed and cared for and did not have to contend with real world stresses such as being exposed to a non sterile and non controlled germ free environment or other challenges that non cared fore animals living in the wild would have to deal with.

    My point is that there were a few other things that should also be considered. Titles are designed to attract attention. The real creamy filling is in the detail.

  12. A genome made from scratch? Who do they think they are trying to kid? Venter himself denies this! ” “This is not life from scratch,” Venter says…” This is nothing more than genetic engineering starting with existing dna. He started with yeast, wrote a computer program had the yeast cultivated dna shipped to a lab and engineered into the sequence of the program and inserted it into an existing cell.

    “”This is not life from scratch,” Venter says. “We are taking advantage of 3 billion years of evolution to transplant a genome into a cell.”"
    http://www.usatoday.com/tech/s.....1_ST_N.htm

    From Venters actual research showing it is simply using existing life and dna to genetically engineer it and transplant the engineered dna made from existing dna in yeast to a donor cell of existing life. This is what they are calling synthetic life, it is not abiogenesis or even really synthetic, it is organic genetic engineering:

    ” Because M. genitalium has an extremely slow growth rate, we turned to two faster-growing mycoplasma species, M. mycoides subspecies capri (GM12) as donor, and M. capricolum subspecies capricolum (CK) as recipient.

    To establish conditions and procedures for transplanting the synthetic genome out of yeast, we developed methods for cloning entire bacterial chromosomes as centromeric plasmids in yeast, including a native M. mycoides genome (8, 9). However, initial attempts to extract the M. mycoides genome from yeast and transplant it into M. capricolum failed. We discovered that the donor and recipient mycoplasmas share a common restriction system. The donor genome was methylated in the native M. mycoides cells and was therefore protected against restriction during the transplantation from a native donor cell (10). However, the bacterial genomes grown in yeast are unmethylated and so are not protected from the single restriction system of the recipient cell. We overcame this restriction barrier by methylating the donor DNA with purified methylases or crude M. mycoides or M. capricolum extracts, or by simply disrupting the recipient cell’s restriction system (8).”

    …Synthetic genome design. Design of the M. mycoides JCVI-syn1.0 genome was based on the highly accurate finished genome sequences of two laboratory strains of M. mycoides subspecies capri GM12 (8, 9, 11). One was the genome donor used by Lartigue et al. [ GenBank accession CP001621] (10). The other was a strain created by transplantation of a genome that had been cloned and engineered in yeast, YCpMmyc1.1-?typeIIIres [ GenBank accession CP001668] (8). This project was critically dependent on the accuracy of these sequences. Although we believe that both finished M. mycoides genome sequences are reliable, there are 95 sites at which they differ. We began to design the synthetic genome before both sequences were finished. Consequently, most of the cassettes were designed and synthesized based on the CP001621 sequence (11). When it was finished, we chose the sequence of the genome successfully transplanted from yeast (CP001668) as our design reference (except that we kept the intact typeIIIres gene). All differences that appeared biologically significant between CP001668 and previously synthesized cassettes were corrected to match it exactly (11).”

    “…They were all produced by assembly of chemically synthesized oligonucleotides by Blue Heron (Bothell, Washington). ”

    8. C. Lartigue
    et al
    ., Creating bacterial strains from genomes that have been cloned and engineered in yeast. Science 325, 1693 (2009).

    9. G. A. Benders et al., Cloning whole bacterial genomes in yeast. Nucleic Acids Res .38, 2558 (2010).

    10. C. Lartigue
    et al
    ., Genome transplantation in bacteria: changing one species to another. Science 317, 632 (2007).

    11. Supporting material is available on Science Online.
    http://www.sciencemag.org/content/329/5987/52.full

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