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Now ain’t that special? The implications of creating the first synthetic bacteria

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

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Is life special, so special that we cannot understand it, much less create it? Are living things endowed with some sort of special power, force or property that distinguishes the inorganic from the organic, the living from the dead?  Can life be nothing more than the precise interaction of physical stuff?

Scientists, theologians and philosophers have been wrangling over this issue for eons. For many, the wondrous nature of what permits something to be alive has been a mystery that science never, ever could penetrate. Life is sacred, special, ineffable and beyond human understanding. Except it isn’t.

What seemed to be an intractable puzzle, with significant religious overtones, has been solved. J Craig Venter, Ham Smith, Clyde Hutchinson, Daniel Gibson and a team of scientists at the Venter Institute in Rockville, Md., have made a new living bacterium from a set of genes they decoded, artificially combined and then stuck into the cored out remains of the bacterium of another species.  In other words, they created a living thing from man-made parts.  Or, in more important words, they created a novel lifeform from man-made parts.

Why did they do it? Well, in part to resolve the age-old debate that life is not reducible to the sum of any parts. But, they also know that the techniques of gene synthesis involved in this remarkable achievement hold out much promise for humankind.

Synthetic biology should permit scientists to make microbes that solve many of our most pressing problems. Building bacteria that digest oil and chemical pollution from leaks and spills or eat cholesterol and other dangerous substances that accumulate in our bodies is all to the good.

Still, this hugely powerful technology does need oversight. Bad guys making nasty bugs or those who are not very careful about where they release new living viruses or bacteria could pose serious risks to our health and environment. Venter and his group were careful to use tiny molecular changes to "watermark," or stamp their creation—an identification requirement that any scientist or company ought be required to utilize when using the techniques of synthetic biology.

It will take both national and international efforts, but these problems can be addressed. The deeper question: is the dignity of life imperiled by showing that human beings can create a novel living thing?  I think not. There are those who are enthralled by the idea that life is a riddle beyond solution. However, the value of life is not imperiled or cheapened by coming to understand how it works.


Arthur Caplan is Sidney D Caplan Professor and the Emmanuel and Robert Hart Director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. Before joining Penn in 1994, he taught at the University of Minnesota, the University of Pittsburgh and Columbia University. He is author or editor of 29 books, including The Penn Guide to Bioethics (Springer, 2009).


Image of DNA from Wikimedia Commons/brian0918

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



Comments 19 Comments

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  1. 1. thejourney 2:43 pm 05/20/2010

    This is great news and an advance for science, but we aren’t even close to solving the mistery of life. They did not create life. What these scientists have done is create the *conditions* for life to appear, as decades ago did the scientists studying the theory of Spontaneous Generation. What life *really is* is a question still to be solved.

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  2. 2. tray64 2:55 pm 05/20/2010

    Yes, life really is a ‘mistery’ (or even ‘mystery’) to be solved. Thanks ‘Jenious’.

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  3. 3. thejourney 3:05 pm 05/20/2010

    It’s funny that we are talking about life and you focus on orthography… that is a "mistery" :-)

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  4. 4. thejourney 3:08 pm 05/20/2010

    @hotblack Could you explain then in simple words what is life and how to create it? I’ve only seen proof on how to replicate it. As it’s said in other article in this magazine: "It’s not genesis (…)," says biological engineer Drew Endy of Stanford University. "The correct word is poesis, human construction"

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  5. 5. jtdwyer 5:06 pm 05/20/2010

    I agree with the author that oversight is necessary. He states:
    "Building bacteria that digest oil and chemical pollution from leaks and spills or eat cholesterol and other dangerous substances that accumulate in our bodies is all to the good. "

    However, live microbes can mutate. For example, when the oil spill is gone an alternative food source might be found in polyvinyl chloride or other common petroleum derivatives. You know, like in the movies, when all the airplanes crash. I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about.

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  6. 6. ChristianMunthe 6:46 pm 05/20/2010

    Art, it is indeed a fantastic achievement, but I believe you overstate it. No synthetic life has yet been created. However, I think you understate the ethical implications. More detail here:

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  7. 7. cderwin 6:51 pm 05/20/2010

    Iit’s still a huge leap

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  8. 8. Crucialitis 7:23 pm 05/20/2010

    They patched together what they wanted, and slapped it in a cell. That’s good enough for me, I don’t think you can cause genesis to happen so easily when it’s taken potentially millions of years just to get the initial binding of proteins in the primordial ooze correct.

    So, no.. if you want to be stingy, it’s not 100% synthetic life. But creating something that doesn’t already exist through modification and having it replicate is just as good as genesis itself for our purposes.

    The only thing precious about life is the initial conditions that caused proteins to bind. It would seem that as of today, everything else is fair game.

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  9. 9. scientific earthling 8:33 pm 05/20/2010

    Not new news. Life has been created from non-living materials before. Reference: The Fifth Miracle by Paul Davies published 1998.

    The argument then forwarded by the god people: But it took a living thinking being to bring together all the necessary materials and subject them to conditions to create a self replicating organic compound – life.

    No you can not win this argument based on creating life. Logical arguments based on Darwinian evolutionary principles show us exactly how god evolved. A creation of man to gain power over a tribe. Tribes controlled by intelligent beings have an evolutionary advantage over tribes ruled by the strongest.

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  10. 10. PamRus04 11:45 pm 05/20/2010

    I saw on the Science channel tonight how a spider’s gene for producing web silk was inserted in goats so the goats would produce milk with that silk protein in it. It’s still a goat that already existed. They just ‘mutated’ it. Now, these scientists took an existing bacteria and inserted mutated DNA. That’s not creating a new life. It’s just making a modification to an already existing, bacteria.

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  11. 11. Steve Skeete 7:23 am 05/21/2010

    So, you take pre-existing materials, place them into a hollowed out pre-existing cell and you have "created" new life!

    In other words it is now possible, apparently for the first time, to create "a living thing from man made parts. And this solves the question of the "genesis" of life?

    Admit it guys, this team has done science proud. What they have done is tremendous in itself. However taking "man-made part" and getting them to live in an already "living" cell is not the answer to how we got here in the first place. Unless you are already a "believer" I would think that we still a long way to go.

    Meanwhile, I salute the team for their amazing work.

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  12. 12. Steve Skeete 7:37 am 05/21/2010

    So, you take pre-existing materials, place them into a hollowed out (pre-existing) cell and you not only "create" new life, but solve the age-old question of "genesis"!

    Undoubtedly, this team of scientists has accomplished a great feat requiring much technical knowledge and skill. I salute them for it.

    However, except you are among the "believers" I suspect that we still have a long way to go before we can answer the question of origins and "genesis".

    In the meantime I say more power to any "creation" that will redound to the benefit of mankind.

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  13. 13. jbairddo 9:13 am 05/21/2010

    if the researchers had taken bacteria genes from another species and put them into an "empty" bacteria, is that creating life? (I am sure they did this first, otherwise a waste of time and materials to synthesize this). The great thing about this is we have the technology to synthesize genetic code, we don’t have to use living organisms now. This story is about technology. Bacteria at least (maybe other lower forms) are used because you can deep freeze them and warm them up and they will come back to "life". I don’t believe the guy with the easy bake oven doing the warming up thinks he is creating life. NO ONE is close to the Frankenstein moment that Caplan seems to imply here. The theological arguments regarding what life is or isn’t aren’t going away because of this. Build something that has a nervous system (I won’t even require a brain), then tell me we have "created" life. Calling this feat the creation of life kind of reminds me of Bush saying the war was over when no one had surrendered and guys were still dying. Calling my dog a goat does mean he is a goat (I think the Bard did this already with a rose).

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  14. 14. frgough 10:07 am 05/21/2010

    "The great thing about this is we have the technology to synthesize genetic code, we don’t have to use living organisms now"

    Except that they did. They had to use yeast cells to assemble and replicate their DNA cassettes.

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  15. 15. Crucialitis 2:10 pm 05/21/2010

    If he inserts a pattern that does not exist otherwise, it is new life. Literally, there is a new species that did no exist.

    I don’t see how you guys are splitting hairs. If you changed human DNA to something that couldn’t breed with humans and put it in an egg cell – and wait for it to multiply. I would not call that a "mutant."

    Jean Grey is hot BECAUSE you can have sex with her! lol.

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  16. 16. Think2BFree 4:40 pm 05/22/2010

    Professor Caplan does not seem to understand the philosophical implications of this milestone. This is just one more piece of evidence supporting the intelligent design paradigm. The assembly of a new life form from salvaged and copied parts with a sprinkling of unique genetic material is a momentous accomplishment but does nothing to support the theory of abiogenesis (the spontaneous formation of life from non living chemicals). In fact it is by definition intelligent design and one more nail in the coffin of abiogenesis which has never been observed or even shown to be possible.

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  17. 17. Squish 2:36 am 05/23/2010

    My two cents about whether this is any real kind of genesis or not:

    After Venter et al decoded the genome of the bacteria they were to reassemble they only used the basic molecular building blocks and computer-stored information to zap their frankenstein host cell to life . This is fantastic. This means that they could get an email from across the world or galaxy, lets say, of another genome to create, and given nucleotides and a host, be able to do it. Or make custom organisms. Theoretically – with enough machines, materials, energy and time – they could try to produce an infinite number of possible genomes; just as a monkey typing forever gets Shakespeare, this theoretical machine would produce any one of us. This is in the realm of the possible.

    Using just these building blocks of nucleotide bases (found in nature!), a host cell, and encoded information – binary, base ten, Esperanto, whatever – they have the technology and computational power to bring the information to life.

    With the increasing power of computers we will be able to find the most parsimonious life – viable life with the shortest genome – and better understand the chances that nature would put these things together chaotically in plausible environments suitable for abiogenesis (perhaps in counterintuitive environments, such as where archaea live today). Well done Craig!

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  18. 18. hedden786 6:21 am 05/24/2010

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  19. 19. fostvedt 5:13 am 06/4/2010

    "What seemed to be an intractable puzzle, with significant religious overtones, has been solved. "

    I believe this is one of the big holes in our current scientific dogma: The second a seemingly impossible barrier is breached which importance is backed of years of debates in various fields, it is somehow the crossing of a final frontier. There is a long way from creating a replicating cell to understanding the complex interactions and realities those interactions constitute. We’ve merely scratched the surface, as usual. Nothing is final.

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