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Life Has Not Been Made in a Laboratory

on May 22, 2010
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CNN: “Scientists Create a Living Organism” & MSNBC: “It’s Alive! Artificial DNA Controls LifeDon’t let a headline like “It’s Alive” fool you. Despite some misleading news reports, life has not been made from scratch in a laboratory.*

They were not created from scratch; instead, a bacterium was simply rebuilt.

Scientists have assembled a bacterial chromosome (using intelligence and a multi-million dollar lab) patterned after an existing bacterial chromosome. But all the components already existed. They were not created from scratch; instead, a bacterium was simply rebuilt.

We most recently mentioned Craig Venter’s bid to “create” life last August. At the time, scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute had “successfully transferred the genome of one type of bacteria into a yeast cell, modified it, and then transplanted into another bacterium”—a feat considered an important preliminary to “creating” life.

In the current breakthrough, Venter’s team used ordinary chemicals to construct a custom genome; though, they received very significant “help” from preexisting organisms. More specifically, the team studied and altered the existing Mycoplasma mycoides genome, which enabled them to design and build a semi-unique Mycoplasma mycoides genome (with added “watermarks”) in the lab. They then commandeered an existing microbe called Mycoplasma capricolum, removed its DNA, and replaced it with the M. mycoides genome.

Regardless of some hyped press reports, this research (brilliantly executed as it was) has nothing to do with evolution in the molecules-to-man sense. Dr. Georgia Purdom, a molecular geneticist on our Answers in Genesis (AiG) staff, notes that there has merely been an alteration within a kind (at the family, genus, or species level). Even the researchers have acknowledged that this first synthetic cell is more a re-creation of existing life—changing one simple type of bacterium into another. While Venter claimed, “We have passed through a critical psychological barrier. It has changed my own thinking, both scientifically and philosophically, about life, and how it works,” he was also quite clear that [his team] “didn’t create life from scratch.”

They have taken God’s created handiwork and refashioned it.

Unsurprisingly, the achievement has been linked to evolution, both implicitly and explicitly. “Venter is creaking open the most profound door in humanity’s history, potentially peeking into its destiny,” argued Oxford University ethicist Julian Savulescu. “This is a step towards . . . creation of living beings with capacities and natures that could never have naturally evolved.” Savulescu is referring to one of Venter’s ultimate goals: engineering organisms to conduct particular tasks, such as producing algal biofuels.

Ultimately, declares Dr. Purdom, this kind of genetic engineering is “like taking the hard drive of computer #1 and putting it into computer #2 that has had its own hard drive removed. So effectively computer #2 becomes computer #1.”

Dr. David Menton (PhD, biology), another researcher with AiG, echoed Dr. Purdom’s conclusions, adding that the research was a form of “genetic plagiarism.” Just as a student might copy someone else’s work, in a sense, so too have these researchers, declares Dr. Menton: they have taken God’s created handiwork and refashioned it.

The components assembled in making this synthetic life were created instantaneously 6,000 years ago by the Creator God (Genesis 1). The work of brilliant scientists using millions of dollars of resources still have not produced anything near a new life form from scratch. Human intelligence and high-power computers can’t produce it; moreover, the mindless process of evolution—even given billions of years—would not be any more efficacious.

For technically inclined readers, here is Dr. Purdom’s summary of what the research group did:

  • They took the known DNA sequence of the genome of the bacteria Mycoplasma mycoides and had a machine synthesize copies of portions of the sequence.
  • The copied portions of the genome of M. mycoides were then “stitched” together and transferred to the bacteria Mycoplasma capricolum that had its own natural genome removed.
  • The M. capricolum bacteria were able to use the M. mycoides genome and reproduce, effectively making a synthetic version of the bacteria called M. mycoides JCVI-syn 1.0.
  • So to make the synthetic bacteria, intelligent scientists used a bacterial sequence that already existed (they merely made a slightly altered copy of it), along with bacteria that already existed. This is excellent research, but not the creation of life in the lab from scratch.

* An AP story was more circumspect in its reporting: “The inventors call it the world’s first synthetic cell, although this initial step is more a re-creation of existing life—changing one simple type of bacterium into another—than a built-from-scratch kind.”


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