On 20th May Craig Venter and his team at the Venter Institute announced the creation of a cell with a functioning synthetic genome. This marks a turning point in the quest for artificial life by biologists. The synthetic DNA was inserted into old microplasma cells with their natural DNA removed. This cell was then able to grow and reproduce, and the reproduced cells contained only the synthetic genome. This is the first time that a code written on a computer (combinations of pairs of proteins in the DNA) has been transferred into the life source of a chain of organisms. This is a new milestone for technology and provides for vivid, diverse applications in the future. The ability to create programmable organisms is almost unbelievable. Just imagine what you can do with them !
Any such development in biology is bound to rake up the same age old debate – Whether this artificial life is ethical ? I think this debate is just too boring to talk about. As far as i am concerned this new development is not artificial life. For one the synthetic DNA sequence was based on the natural DNA found in the cell, and also a functioning cell is required to reproduce this DNA. Artificial life would be when the DNA is made from scratch.
This development raises some interesting possibilities for the regeneration of extinct creatures. Indeed species like Mammals, the tasmanian wolf and even neanderthals ! Ofcourse raising Neanderthals from their dead graves would lead to ethical issues. Mammals are feasible because elephants can easily serve as a host. A tryuly extinct species like the Tasmanian wolf would ofcourse be a much more difficult challenge.
Synthetic cells can also help in combating with some present day problems. On the horizon are problems like converting atmospheric carbon-dioxide to fuel, trapping the sunlight into usable energy and dealing with oil spills. You can cook up as many uses as you wish. Only time will tell whether the technology can catch up. What is necessary is that the cost of this technology should fall exponentially.
I would like to end by qouting Freeman Dyson : “I feel sure of only one conclusion. The ability to design and create new forms of life marks a turning-point in the history of our species and our planet.”
PS: I would recommend the following sources if anyone is interested – See the Venter Institute press release, discussion in Nature (pdf), more discussion at Edge, and some background from Carl Zimmer. .