ZOMFG!!!!11!!! ARTIFICIAL LIFE!!!11!!!! (Well, Not Exactly)

February 3, 2008

As reported in a recent news piece in Nature, researchers at the Craig Venter Institute (“CVI”) have chemically synthesized the complete half-megabase genome of the pathogenic bacterium Mycoplasma genitalium. In previously reported work, CVI successfully transplanted the genome of Mycoplasma mycoides into the extremely closely related species Mycoplasma capricolum.
Nature breathlessly characterized these accomplishments as follows:

The stage is now set for the creation of the first artificial organism — and it could be achieved within the year.

Sorry, but this is total bullshit, and Nature should be ashamed of itself for emulating the journalistic practices of the National Enquirer.

Of course, this whole thing hinges on how you define “artificial life”. In PhysioProf’s opinion, the most interesting non-trivial definition of “artificial life” is “order a whole bunch of chemicals from Sigma, mix them all up and react them in different ways, and create a living cell”. Nearly as interesting would be “biochemically isolate in pure form all the various biomolecules that comprise a living cell, and somehow combine them to create a new living cell”.
Either of these would be totally awesome, an absolutely incredible feat of bioengineering. But we aren’t even close to achieving them, and CVI’s accomplishments–while impressive–don’t bring us any closer to artificial life as defined in these interesting ways. In fact, what CVI has achieved are the easiest steps in creating interesting artificial life.
While it is impressive that they chemically synthesized a small bacterial genome, remember that all double-stranded DNA of arbitrary nucleotide sequence behaves physico-chemically essentially identically, thus reducing the problem to one of scaling up methods that have existed for decades. Same thing with transforming living bacteria with exogenous DNA.
Now Nature, understandably not wanting to detract from the “ZOMFG!!!11!!! ARTIFICIAL LIFE!!!11!!!” angle to their story, only provide their definition of artifical life in a separate text box. Only here do we find out that “[i]t is hard to say what is and is not artificial life”, that scientists have already made “genetically altered plants and animals”, and that it could be that even once CVI successfully transplants a chemically synthesized genome into a bacterium, it might not be appropriate to consider it “man-made life”, but rather “just man-replicated life”.
CVI is close to creating artificial life only if one defines the term broadly enough that it encompasses what vast numbers of bioscientists routinely do on a daily basis: generate living organisms that contain functionally active exogenous DNA. Yes, CVI is doing this on a much larger scale than ever before, replacing entire genomes. And yes, CVI is pushing the limits of how different an exogenous genome can be from an endogenous genome while still supporting life.
These are amazing feats, and will surely lead to tremendously important bioengineering and biotechnology applications. But this is not “artificial life”, defined in any non-trivial way, nor does it constitute “building blocks for artificial life” (see article subhed), in any less trivial sense than copper wire and piping can be said to constitute “building blocks for a high-rise steel-frame skyscraper”.

4 Responses to “ZOMFG!!!!11!!! ARTIFICIAL LIFE!!!11!!!! (Well, Not Exactly)”

  1. whimple Says:

    Preach on brother! Still, if it gets the general public (who pays most of the bills) excited and/or engaged in contemporary science, I’d consider that a good thing. I think just about every professional scientist knows that this is “Gee-Whiz because-we-can” science, rather than any kind of significant conceptual advance, but maybe throwing in the odd one of these here or there isn’t so bad. (not that Venter’s ego really needs any boosting: did you see how the CVI watermarked the synthetic genome? They put in sequences of nucleotides that when translated to amino acids read “*CRAIGVENTER*” etc.)


  2. DrugMonkey Says:

    That’s ego-tastic!!!!


  3. PhysioProf Says:

    I think just about every professional scientist knows that this is “Gee-Whiz because-we-can” science, rather than any kind of significant conceptual advance, but maybe throwing in the odd one of these here or there isn’t so bad.

    There is no doubt that CVI’s accomplishments are very important for advancing the goal of creating microorganisms harboring complete genetically engineered metabolic pathways that perform useful physicochemical transformations. This a hugely important goal, and CVI’s technological advances are key to reaching it. But this just ain’t “artificial life”; it’s “engineered life”, impressively so.


  4. Dave Briggs Says:

    I agree with your point that they are into hyperbole land! But, just trying to think of what good might come out of it: I think when we do finally get to the artificial life being a reality there are going to be so many questions, technical, ethical, etc., that it doesn’t hurt to get everybody warmed up a little now for the then.
    Dave Briggs :~)


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