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Craig Venter has neither created–nor demystified–life

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Craig Venter is the Lady Gaga of science. Like her, he is a drama queen, an over-the-top performance artist with a genius for self-promotion. Hype is what Craig Venter does, and he does it extremely well, whether touting the decoding of his own genome several years ago or his construction of a hybrid bacterium this year. In a typical Venter touch sections of the bacterium’s DNA translate into portentous quotes, such as this one from James Joyce: "To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, and to re-create life out of life."

So I don’t fault Venter for hyping his recent achievement, but I do fault others who should know better, such as the bioethicist Arthur Caplan. "What seemed to be an intractable puzzle, with significant religious overtones, has been solved," Caplan proclaims on this Web site . Venter and his colleagues have "created a novel life-form from man-made parts." Caplan warns that "this hugely powerful technology does need oversight" (no doubt by bioethicists like Caplan).

Actually, Venter has taken just another incremental step in the human manipulation of life, which began millennia ago when our ancestors started breeding dogs and ducks and accelerated recently as a result of advances in biotechnology. In terms of scariness, the synthesis of a poliovirus in 2002 freaked me out much more than Venter’s work.

Venter’s team synthesized and modified DNA from one type of bacteria and inserted the artificial genome into another bacterial species whose own DNA had been extracted. "The form of life that was created was not new," Mark Bedau, a philosopher at Reed College and editor of the journal Artificial Life , said in Science . "What was essentially done was the re-creation of an existing bacterial form of life, except that it was given a prosthetic genome (synthesized in the laboratory), and except that the genome was put into the cytoplasm of a slightly different species."

As Bedau and others point out, scientists still have not come close to creating a living organism from nonbiological materials, especially ones that might have existed on Earth four billion years ago. In other words, scientists have not shown how life began, how inanimate materials become animate.

This problem of life’s origin appears harder today than in 1953, after a 23-year-old graduate student named Stanley Miller filled a glass chamber with methane, ammonia, hydrogen (representing the atmosphere) and water (the oceans). A spark-discharge device zapped the gases with simulated lightning while a heating coil kept the waters bubbling. Within a few days the water and gases were stained with a reddish goo rich in amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. (Jeffrey Bada, a biochemist and former student of Miller, recently reanalyzed Miller’s old samples and discovered that they contain even more amino acids than Miller had realized.)

Miller and other scientists thought that they would quickly demonstrate in detail how genesis unfolded, but that hasn’t happened. When I interviewed Miller in the early 1990s, he admitted that the problem of life’s origin had turned out to be much harder than he had imagined. He was nonetheless still confident that one day scientists would crack the riddle of life’s origin: "It will be in the nature of something that will make you say, ‘Jesus, there it is. How could you have overlooked this for so long?’ And everybody will be totally convinced." Miller died three years ago , his dream unfulfilled.

There are now almost as many theories of life’s origin as there are theorists. Perhaps the most popular is the "RNA world" theory, which posits ribonucleic acid as the first biomolecule. Whereas DNA cannot replicate without the help of enzymes, RNA can act as it own enzyme, snipping itself in two and splicing itself back together again. But RNA and its components are difficult to synthesize in a laboratory, let alone under plausible prebiotic conditions. Moreover, once RNA is synthesized it can make new copies of itself only with a great deal of coaxing by a chemist. Stanley Miller, among others, believed that some simpler—and possibly quite dissimilar—molecule must have paved the way for RNA, but no strong candidate has emerged.

Arthur Caplan declares that Venter and other scientists have dispelled the notion that life "is sacred, special, ineffable and beyond human understanding." Wrong. We still have no idea how life began, or whether life exists only here on our lonely planet or pervades the cosmos. One of the great ironies of modern science is that as we gain more power over life, it remains as fundamentally mysterious as ever.


John Horgan, a former Scientific American staff writer, directs the Center for Science Writings at Stevens Institute of Technology. (Photo courtesy of Skye Horgan.)

 Image: National Institutes of Health

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Dr. Paradox 11:46 am 05/27/2010

    Thank God somebody else is *not* drooling over this ‘achievement’.

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  2. 2. cniebla 11:58 am 05/27/2010

    WoW! only ONE opinion against Venter’s latest achievement. C’mon. I’ve been following Venter since HIS achievements accelerated DNA decoding, and I’ve heard many complaints from "old fashioned" scientists. Venter have NOT created life, you’re correct. But Lady Ga-Ga? Life HAD been "demystified" since the greek’s time man, unless you worship something mystical and pretend to do science at the same time…

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  3. 3. smravuri 12:23 pm 05/27/2010

    People are under the wrong impression that understanding the creation of life is same as actually creating life (even synthetically).

    In general, the laws that let you discover or design a system (like a car, a theory of origin of life or a cell) are hidden, say, in our brain or our consciousness compared to the laws that let you understand how the design works (like Newton’s laws or quantum mechanical laws).

    For the latter problem, Venter’s work is an important step. For the former problem, we only have luck or creativity as the best explanation.

    For example, for man-made designs, we have an excuse that the former creation problem is hidden within our brain.

    For nature’s creation problem like creating life from inanimate objects or creating complex multicellular organism when the world only had single cellular organisms, what is our excuse? Random mutations followed by natural selection over millions of years?

    Even if Darwin’s theory is acceptable, isn’t it weird that man-made creation solution is so disjoint from nature’s creation solution?

    I have a theory of complex systems (written as a book that is about 850 pages long) that answers hard problems within origin of life as well as consciousness, free will, passage of time. It will be released in about 6 months from now. One interesting feature of my theory is to close the gap between these creation problems and usage (of the design) problem.

    It reveals the true structure and beauty of complex dynamical systems that have millions of moving parts to help understand how life can form entirely naturally from inanimate objects, not just some RNA or other types of molecules self-assembling randomly under reasonably general conditions.

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  4. 4. EvolvingApe 4:12 pm 05/27/2010

    I am not understanding what the problem is.

    This is still a significant achievement. And yes, science has not found the answer to the origin of life, but is steadily moving closer and closer to it. One day, we will find it.

    One can’t help but wonder how much further we would have been, had science and culture not been suppressed for over a millennium by the followers of "jealous gods," particularly those of the Abrahamic regions.

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  5. 5. ormondotvos 6:48 pm 05/27/2010

    If Venter is GaGa, who is Horgan? Fair question, I think.

    If Global Warming had a public relations genius like Venter working the case, perhaps we would have half the population disbelieving the theory….

    Scientists can be so dismissive of imagination that they call it MERE handwaving. But it’s the handwaving that inspires the efforts to understand, through the teasing of the mind.

    Fortunately Venter is the PR genius, and Horgan is Eeyore…

    Go, Craig! Could you work on pushing AGW for a while?

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  6. 6. Andira 7:00 pm 05/27/2010

    One tendency of us humans is to simplify, usually too much. The genesis of life probably was not fairly instantaneous, as in Miller’s experiments, taking neither three nor seven days. A chemical synthesis may have been going on some some hundred thousand years in a sequence of stages. On the other hans the idea of a kind of key to the whole thing is attractive, so keep looking, those who can. Having believed life to be common in the universe, I now believe that we may not be alone, considering its vastness, but still a rare phenomenon.

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  7. 7. Live-and-Learn 12:34 am 05/28/2010

    Lady Gaga? That’s not nice. And not to put too fine a point on it, but scientific writers write because they can’t cut it in the lab. The author could have made his point without getting personal.

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  8. 8. DavidB 12:02 pm 05/28/2010

    Craig Venter has shown that the key ingredient to life is immaterial, its information, that, with enough computing power, can be recreated and manipulated within a computer program, to generate distinctly new life forms. This is a remarkable accomplishment, a game changer, with far reaching consequences for every area of knowledge. You can bet your genome on it.

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  9. 9. Prof. Sm. P. Muthu 1:07 am 05/29/2010

    The article clearly shows that it was the genome which was man-made. Instead of tinkering with a few genes here and there, the entire genome was synthesised. But, the cytoplasmic machinery, which is as important, if not more, of the recipient cell is too complex to be synthesised at the moment. Definitely, this is not creation of a new "cell".

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  10. 10. mystrr 10:50 pm 05/30/2010

    Sounds like a magician has poured milk into a rolled up newspaper and then quickly opened it and showered everyone with confetti. Still an achievement but not a new creation, just substitution.

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  11. 11. bboppalou 6:31 pm 06/2/2010

    I hope he continues to bring high-value science to my table.
    Seconds anyone?

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  12. 12. robert schmidt 3:12 pm 06/3/2010

    I fail to see where Mr. Venter has made claims that are inaccurate. As for the quote, Venter’s team did make life out of life. The materials they had weren’t living but based on living things, they put them together and made a living thing. He didn’t invent life or solve the problem of how life began but I don’t think he claimed that he did.

    To me the problem of how life began is a bit like dropping a billion dice and looking for a specific combination. Nature had the time and lots of dice, we have neither. It doesn’t mean we can’t understand how the dice work or the probability of it landing in a certain sequence, it just means that creating a lab model will be difficult. Ultimately, if we do figure it out and model it, it will be because we have controlled the chaos to speed up the process to which critics will reply, that we still haven’t replicated the natural process because the natural process was not constrained.

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  13. 13. Sycamore 10:31 am 06/4/2010

    Coming up with the first self-replicators was a roll of the dice, obviously, but once the firsts show up the probabilities changed and the world was never the same again. Self-replicators could take care of themselves by flooding the environment with legions so the chances of holding on went up sharply.

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  14. 14. lifeandtechie 11:31 am 06/4/2010

    I don’t dispute that Venter’s work is a technological quantum leap, but the hype about it and the claims of "artificial life" creation begin to look a little superfluous when what someone like Jay Keasling has already achieved. More about this perspective here:

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  15. 15. lifeandtechie 11:32 am 06/4/2010

    I don’t dispute that Venter’s work is a technological quantum leap, but the hype about it and the claims of "artificial life" creation begin to look a little superfluous when what someone like Jay Keasling has already achieved. More about this perspective here:

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  16. 16. lifeandtechie 11:44 am 06/4/2010

    meant to say: "…begin to look a little superfluous when compared to what…"

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  17. 17. eco-steve 8:20 am 06/8/2010

    Early life only evolved after many millions of years in highly complex random conditions which have yet to be completely established, and may never be It is likely that this only happened just once, as life only exists in one form on earth. However man is short-cutting genetic evolution for the good or bad as yet remains to be seen. Let’s just hope they get it right.

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  18. 18. LearnMe 6:47 pm 06/13/2010

    Right on. I claim to know very little about science and math … but the implications of the work of, not necessarily Craig Venter’s work, but of his science team is unarguable.

    It sounds like a bit of jealousy by Horgan? A writer of science versus someone who actually practices science. Hmmm?

    Seems kind of like a president/lawyer who never actually practiced law or had a real job outside teaching theories from a book.

    Ain’t nothin’ like people with theoretical book smarts versus those who actually DO IT. So, Horgan why don’t you buy yourself a microscope and put down the pen! Lady GaGa, really? As the blogger said so, where does that leave you Mr. Horgan? As a washed up disgruntled scientist who writes smear articles against those with an actual vision.

    I guess there are those that do and others that just write about them.

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  19. 19. ibenian 11:38 am 08/25/2010

    The most important philosophical consequence of Venter’s achievement is; There’s no mystical life force that is implanted into living beings. It’s just highly complex, highly organized material that is doing a mechanical work. Venter did not have to use ‘some life force’, ‘soul’, ‘spirit’, or any other paranormal entity as an ingredient. Which should tell believers of those things something. It’s not surprising for the scientifically minded, but still satisfying to know that it has been proven experimentally.

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  20. 20. RolfK 9:30 am 07/19/2011

    I thought the magazine (I guess one cannot call it a journal)is called ‘Scientific American,’ not ‘Religious-Scientific American.’ John Horgan should be working for FoxNews, not for a journal with the history and pretense of SciAm.

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