Matt Wuerker

Life Made to Order

The recent announcement by Craig Venter that his team had created a synthetic form of life elicited predictable accusations of "playing God," as well as concerns about the very real risks connected with the release of new or genetically modified organisms. But those risks seem decisively outweighed by the hope that synthetic biology offers.

MELBOURNE – In the sixteenth century, the alchemist Paracelsus offered a recipe for creating a living being that began with putting sperm into putrefying “venter equinus.” This is usually translated as “horse manure,” but the Latin “venter” means abdomen or uterus.

So occultists now will no doubt have a fine time with the fact that Craig Venter was the driving force behind the team of scientists that last month announced that they had created a synthetic form of life: a bacterium with a genome designed and created from chemicals in a laboratory.

The new bacterium, nicknamed “Synthia,” replicates and produces proteins. By any reasonable definition, it is alive. Although it is very similar to a natural bacterium from which it was largely copied, the creators put distinctive strings of DNA into its genome to prove that it is not a natural object. These strings spell out, in code, a Web site address, the names of the researchers, and apt quotations, such as Richard Feynman’s “What I cannot build, I cannot understand.”

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