The headlines are in: “Craig Venter creates synthetic life form” (from the Guardian)

One would look at the comments and think that humans are playing “God”.

Sorry folks, we’re not there yet.

The genome is just a blueprint.

The genome itself isn’t “life”.

If you happen to think that a genome = life, try this experiment (it is simple): extract DNA from a cell, and go put it in a test tube, and see what happens.

Does it create cells that grow?

Nope. It does nothing.

What Venter’s group did (which includes my friend Clyde Hutchison) is simple: they transplanted a new blueprint into an already living cell.

Why is this such a big deal to people? Why do people blow this up into hyperbole, claiming this is “playing God?”

It is a marvelous technical accomplishment, but let’s be a little realistic. The method would not have worked without an already functioning/intact cell to transplant the blueprint into.

Furthermore, from my discussions with Clyde, they are far from the point of being able to actually “design” the blueprint from scratch.

In fact, on his recent visit to my campus, we mused about the idea of “genome designer” software – that would allow a person to pick out the attributes desired in a genome, then have the software design the DNA that will make that into being.

The conclusion? That software is probably decades away. (I’d love to be a part of creating that software, but the chance of getting a funding agency to pay for it is close to nil – they don’t like long term, creative ventures like that).

The genome that Venter’s group synthesized is based on an existing genome, already designed by nature and evolved over billions of years. They just copied its code, and added a few extras.

That’s like finding a blueprint, making a Xerox copy of it, and then putting your signature on it, then handing it to the architect. The resulting building may look much like the original, but that doesn’t mean that you are playing “the great architect in the sky”.

I don’t want to sound like a party pooper – this accomplishment is an important first step towards “designing life”. But it is only a first step.

Much akin to the first step towards building an automobile that consisted of strapping an engine to a buggy. Someone had to show that it was feasible, long before people like Henry T Ford figured out how to produce them efficiently.

This is like that – it is quite important in that it shows that it is possible.

But in terms of “Playing God”, this one falls short.

2 thoughts

  1. Morgan:You said “I’d love to be a part of creating that software, but the chance of getting a funding agency to pay for it is close to nil – they don’t like long term, creative ventures like that). You have always encouraged looking at the big picture. From that point of view, I think this is something NIH (or something like NIH) should fund. I see a lot of good coming out of it. If I were to write it up as a big picture thing for a NIH proposal, are you saying, it will be a no go. Are there big pictures that are good and some that are not. How do we know..Just curious..

    1. Hi Vijay, you “caught” me 🙂 Anyway, it is vital to have the big picture vision. But at the same time, whatever you’re going to work on usually has to solve some relatively immediate problem. This is especially true for NIH funding. In the project above, designing that kind of software would likely take many years and perhaps a million dollars or more. And then it would be hard to prove ahead of time that it will actually “work”. Hence, it doesn’t have the attributes of something that is likely to be fundable by most agencies. That said, I know DOE occasionally funds this kind of thing, so it is not impossible (but still would be difficult). BTW, I’ve trademarked “GenomeDesigner”. (Just kidding)

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