Thursday, July 08, 2010

is the synthetic cell about life?

The Scientist | The announcement that the J. Craig Venter Institute has succeeded (finally) in synthesizing the genome of Mycoplasma mycoides—inserting it into a cell of Mycoplasma capricolum whose genome had been removed, and creating a fully functioning Mycoplasma mycoides—has been heralded as the moment that science finally took the magic out of life. Venter has said that the achievement has changed the definition of life. Bioethicist Art Caplan, a friend of mine, thinks it puts forever to rest the idea that living things are “endowed with some sort of special power, force, or property.” It is conclusive proof that life is nothing more than interacting chemicals.

The achievement is arguably a landmark moment in science, but it’s not a philosophical watershed.

First, as many have noted, the technical accomplishment is not quite what the JCVI press release claimed. It’s hard to see this as a synthetic species, or a synthetic organism, or a synthetic cell; it’s a synthetic genome of Mycoplasma mycoides, which is familiar enough. David Baltimore was closer to the truth when he told the New York Times that the researchers had not created life so much as mimicked it. It might be still more accurate to say that the researchers mimicked one part and borrowed the rest.

The explanation from the Venter camp is that the genome took over the cell, and since the genome is synthetic, therefore the cell is synthetic. But this assumes a strictly top-down control structure that some biologists now question. Why not say instead that the genome and the cell managed to work out their differences and collaborate, or even that the cell adopted the genome (and its identity)? Do we know enough to say which metaphor is most accurate?

For the sake of argument, let’s grant that JCVI created a synthetic cell. This is when we must address Caplan’s question. Does creating life in a lab demystify it?