Over the weekend several news outlets were declaring somewhat definitively that scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) have created “artificial life.”1, 2, 3, 4 However, this hype (as usual) is premature as JCVI has announced no such thing.
In August 2007, JCVI scientists reported in Science that they had successfully transplanted the genome of one species of Mycoplasma bacteria into another species of Mycoplasma bacteria.5 See Semi-Homemade Life for more details on this. JCVI’s next step is to take a completely man-made chromosome (their previous work involved using the bacterium’s natural chromosome) and transplant it into a Mycoplasma bacterium with the new species being dubbed Mycoplasma laboratorium.2 The DNA sequence of the man-made or artificial chromosome is similar to that of another Mycoplasma bacteria with approximately one-fifth of its DNA removed that was considered to be “non-essential.”2 It is hoped that the room created by this removal will allow the scientists to put instructions (in the form of DNA) in the chromosome for making clean fuels, degrading toxic wastes, etc. Some are worried that although this technology could be used for good, it could also be used to make bio-weapons.
However, the bacteria were genetically engineered to not survive in an environment outside the lab.
Simply put, this is a new form of genetic engineering. The hype is to be expected, as happened in the 1970s when recombinant DNA technology was first introduced. Recombinant DNA technology involves piecing together bits of DNA from different species and then placing them in an organism (typically bacteria or yeast). For example, the insulin gene from humans has been placed in a bacterial chromosome with the result being that the bacteria now produce human insulin. This has helped countless individuals who suffer from diabetes. Many were concerned that these new bacteria would escape the lab and wreak havoc on the world. However, the bacteria were genetically engineered to not survive in an environment outside the lab, and soon working with them became an everyday occurrence that revolutionized molecular biology. My own research work would not have been possible without this technology.
Let’s use an analogy to help us understand this issue better. Seamstresses can buy fabric and sew it together to make a dress. The seamstress is limited in what the final outcome will be by the material that is available for purchase. This is similar to the recombinant DNA technology, which employs piecing together bits of existing DNA from multiple species. If a seamstress were to make her own fabric and sew it together to make a dress, then the final outcome is unlimited. This is similar to the new technology in making artificial life, which employs making the DNA rather than using existing DNA. The possible outcomes are much broader. Keep in mind that life is not being created from “scratch.” The scientists are using their intelligence to do it! They are using a sequence for the man-made chromosome that is similar to a pre-existing bacterial chromosome, using pre-existing DNA bases to make the man-made chromosome, and putting the chromosome into a pre-existing bacterial cell. All the pre-existing items were created by God! Pat Mooney, director of ETC Group, a Canadian bioethics organization said, “For the first time, God has competition.”4 It seems to me that in this competition the score is: God ∞ (infinity), Man 1/2.
JCVI’s spokeswoman, Heather Kowalski, said this, “The Guardian [article] is ahead of themselves on this. We have not achieved what some have speculated we have in synthetic life. When we do so there will be a scientific publication and we are likely months away from that.”3 I sincerely hope that JCVI scientists will follow this protocol and have their work peer-reviewed and published before it is announced officially in the media. While this technology could be an exciting breakthrough that will once again revolutionize molecular biology, it doesn’t compare to the words of the Creator God in Genesis 1 when He created life by His words alone.