Scientists have created an artificial genome and inserted it into
a bacteria cell, creating the first synthetic life. The goal of the
project is to design microbes for energy or health applications.
Scientists have taken a significant step toward creating
artificial life by transplanting computer-designed genetic material
into a bacteria cell, forming a new strain of the bacteria.
The work, while a significant scientific breakthrough, touches on
profound questions regarding the origins and nature of life, some
One of the ultimate goals of the project, the scientists say, is
to develop the ability to design microbes from scratch to perform
functions ranging from converting carbon-dioxide into oil and
cleaning up pollution to serving as tiny machines for speeding the
manufacture of vaccines.
The effort, reported in Friday's issue of the journal Science,
does not represent a complete from-scratch organism.
Instead, the team used computer data on an existing bacterial
genome as a template. Then they digitally modified the genome,
adding their own formulations - including genetic material that
encoded the researchers' names and three literary quotes in a kind
of artist's signature that verified the genetic material the
bacterial cell took up was the synthetic form.
So the effort remains a proof of principle, says J. Craig Venter,
who heads the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Md., and led
the research effort. Much work remains before researchers attain the
ability to design and make fully custom microbes.
Still, the first colony of synthetic cells represents a
biological and philosophical watershed.
"This is the first self-replicating species on the planet whose
parent is a computer," Dr. Venter said during a press briefing
Thursday announcing the results. "The cell started with a digital
code in a computer."
The team used that information to build a bacterial chromosome
essentially from four bottles of chemicals. They used yeast as a
factory for assembling smaller segments of the chromosome into ever-
larger segments. Then they transferred the entire new chromosome
into a recipient cell, whose internal chemistry activated this
assembly of genes.
Beyond the technical accomplishment - and the inevitable concerns
about the safety and ethics of this fledgling technology - lies what
may be a more profound implication of the work, according to
University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Arthur Caplan.
Since Aristotle, he explains, scientists, philosophers, and
theologians have argued over whether life involves more than
chemical components - some have called it a "soul," others elan
vital, a vital force that distinguishes the living from the
Venter's team has shown that with the right mix of inanimate
chemicals to build DNA sequences, and the right soup within the cell
receiving the DNA, the result is a living organism, Dr. Caplan says.
The concept isn't alien to biologists, particularly those probing
the origins of life on Earth. Yet Venter's work could be seen as the
"final word in favor of mechanistic reductionism" of organic life,
he says. "That's the enormous significance of this work."
Indeed, the work highlights a broad trend in the physical and
biological sciences - one that over the past several decades has
evolved to give humanity the ability to manipulate inanimate, and
now animate, matter at its most fundamental levels and in forms of
uniquely human design. …