The genome pioneer J. Craig Venter has taken another step in his quest to create synthetic life, by synthesizing an entire bacterial genome and using it to take over a cell.
Dr. Venter calls the result a “synthetic cell” and is presenting the research as a landmark achievement that will open the way to creating useful microbes from scratch to make products like vaccines and biofuels. At a press conference Thursday, Dr. Venter described the converted cell as “the first self-replicating species we’ve had on the planet whose parent is a computer.”“This is a philosophical advance as much as a technical advance,” he said, suggesting that the “synthetic cell” raised new questions about the nature of lifeOther scientists agree that he has achieved a technical feat in synthesizing the largest piece of DNA so far — a million units in length — and in making it accurate enough to substitute for the cell’s own DNA.But some regard this approach as unpromising because it will take years to design new organisms, and meanwhile progress toward making biofuels is already being achieved with conventional genetic engineering approaches in which existing organisms are modified a few genes at a time.Dr. Venter’s aim is to achieve total control over a bacterium’s genome, first by synthesizing its DNA in a laboratory and then by designing a new genome stripped of many natural functions and equipped with new genes that govern production of useful chemicals.
Naturally this calls into question what divides life and non-life, which, for Buddhists of the Mahayana variety, isn't so bad because of our non-dualism. But this is reason number N, that I'm glad I'm not a monotheist.