A few months back, there was a great deal of excitement in the popular science media about the construction of a self-replicating synthetic cell. It made headlines all over the popular science media from New Scientist,1 Yahoo,2 RealClear Science,3 and The Science Times,4 among others. The claims were repeated all over the internet and represented a significant advance toward life in a laboratory if the claims were true. However, as usual, pop-sci reporting is missing quite a bit of nuance.
The type of research involved here is termed “minimal genome research.” Minimal genome research is the attempt to determine how far the genome of a bacteria can be reduced and still self-replicate. A form of origin of life research, minimal genome research attempts to work backward from existing life to figure out just how complex the supposed first life had to be.
The research being presented is not completely new. Craig Venter, most famous for his involvement in the human genome project that wrapped up in 2003, and his team did something similar in 2010.5 Venter’s team then built on his 2010 research to create the first artificial self-replicating cell in 2016.6 However, the first self-replicating cells had issues. They replicated, but not in normal cellular shapes.
The newest (2021) research was an attempt to correct the issue with the shapes resulting from cellular replication. In this, Venter and his team were successful. The newly created cells replicated correctly,7 leading to the aforementioned headlines.
The research is really quite interesting, but it does not match the headlines. The researchers did not create a synthetic cell—they used an existing one. They extracted the DNA from cells of Mycoplasma mycoides, a bacterium species that lacks cell walls. Having extracted the DNA, they inserted a new genome into the cell. The new genome was basically a stripped-down version of the Mycoplasma genome. Genes that were not deemed necessary for life were removed. Note that this is the point of minimal genome research.
The researchers did not create a synthetic cell—they used an existing one.
The issue is with the presentation. The researchers did not make a synthetic cell. They did not synthesize a single cellular organelle. The only cellular part that was synthesized was DNA. While this is certainly an accomplishment, it is not the same as a synthetic cell.
Arguing that synthesizing DNA is the same as creating a synthetic cell is specious and is well explained by the following analogy. Cell phones require SIM cards to operate. If you were to take the SIM card out, copy and/or modify it, remove everything but what allows you to make calls, then reinsert the SIM into the phone, would you be justified in saying “I made a cell phone?” Absolutely not! Copying the SIM card and reducing the phone’s function does not justify a claim that you generated the cell phone. All that happened in this scenario was you made the cell phone less functional than it was previously!
The researchers did not make a synthetic cell.
The analogy above may be slightly ridiculous, but it represents minimal genome research accurately. No new cells were created, just like no new cell phones were created by copying the SIM card. Stripping down the genome and providing new DNA does not create a synthetic cell. Unfortunately, the researchers fuel this misconception in closing their paper by mentioning how their research will assist with making more synthetic cells.
No new cells were created, just like no new cell phones were created by copying the SIM card. Stripping down the genome and providing new DNA does not create a synthetic cell.
The researchers’ mention of a synthetic cell allows the pop-sci journalists to run with headlines, such as “Artificial life made in lab can grow and divide like natural bacteria.”8 The headline is incredibly misleading: there is nothing truly “artificial” about these cells. The cells are completely real with completely real organelles. The DNA is synthetic but made of the same naturally occurring material as the original DNA. The only difference was which genes were included (and excluded)—by design.
As usual, the claims of the popular science media have been overblown. No synthetic life has been created. In reality, the only change was reducing the genome of the bacteria in size. That’s it. The only recorded ex nihilo creation can be found in Genesis.