Another step towards synthetic life reported in BBC News and Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1151721 24 Jan 2008. A team of scientists in the USA have taken another step towards making organisms with redesigned genomes. The scientists set out to make an artificial version of the genome of a bacterium named Mycoplasma gentitalium. This bacterium was chosen because it has the smallest known genome for a free living organism. The scientists started with small lengths of DNA which had been strung together base by base according to known sequences in the bacterium’s genome. These were linked together using enzymes until they had four very long pieces, each representing a quarter of the total genome. They then inserted these into a yeast cell, which copied them and combined them into a single chromosome. To check they had made a complete new genome they analysed the sequence of the newly made chromosome and found it matched that of the bacterium.

The scientists describe their work as making “synthetic” rather than “artificial” life. Hamilton Smith, who took part in the project, commented to BBC News: “We like to distinguish synthetic life from artificial life. With synthetic life, we’re re-designing the cell chromosomes; we’re not creating a whole new artificial life system.” He went on to say, “We’re simply re-writing the operating software for cells – we’re not designing a genome from the bottom up – you can’t drop a genome into a test tube and expect it to come to life.” The artificial chromosome will have to be transplanted into another cell so that it can use the cellular machinery to grow and reproduce.


Editorial Comment: It is good to see scientists admit they are only rearranging genetic information that already exists. It would be even better to see them admit that a much smarter scientist must have designed and made the original “software for cells” they are re-writing. Furthermore, they have to use already existing cellular machinery to build the chromosome and use the pre-existing genetic information it contains. Since no-one pretends that computer software wrote itself, or that computer hardware made itself, it is foolish to believe that living cells, and the genetic information they contain, came about by naturalistic or chance random processes. (Ref. design, microbiology, genetics)

Evidence News 9 April 2008