Sune Holm

Creating Headlines, Artificial Life, Ethical Concerns, and Ontological Perplexity

Synthetic biology has been catapulted into the
public sphere after an article
in Science
 reported that
Craig Venter and his collaborators had managed to make a synthetic cell by
inserting a fabricated genome into a bacterium. The achievement made headlines
and was widely presented as a case of creating artificial life. Already there
has been debate about what impact it may be expected to have on future
biotechnological research and about what ethical concerns arise in relation to
synthetic biology. Unsurprisingly a third issue has been whether the
scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute have really created artificial
life?


With regard to the latter question the debate
has not focused on whether the synthetic cell is really alive, but whether it
is properly artificial. In an interview
with the BBC
 Nobel
Prize-winning biologist Paul
Nurse
 points out that not just the genome but the entire cell
would have to be synthesized for it to be properly artificial. What Venter
has produced is the first living cell which is entirely controlled by
synthesized DNA, not artificial life. 


George Church, geneticist at Harvard Medical
School, doesn’t think that Venter has really created new life either. Commenting
in Nature,
Church says that the bacterium made by Venter “is not changed from the wild
state in any fundamental sense. Printing out a copy of an ancient text isn’t the
same as understanding the language.” 

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