Venter’s aim is to create useful new synthetic organisms. But exactly this kind of genetic engineering has been commonplace on an industrial scale for decades. The first great breakthrough was synthetic human insulin for diabetics in 1982: the insulin gene is inserted into the common or garden intestinal bacterium E. coli and the bug churns out insulin which is harvested in huge quantities. This has been the standard method of making insulin ever since. Venter’s experiment does not take us any nearer creating the organisms he says he wants: biofuel bugs, artificial photosynthesis bugs, CO2 scavenging bugs etc.
What Venter has done is similar to, and less impressive than, the cloning of Dolly the sheep. In Dolly, the genome of a higher organism, a mammal, was inserted into an empty cell and developed into a full-blown Dolly sheep. Venter’s bug is just a bug. We have known since Dolly that complete genomes inserted into sucked-out cells function perfectly normally to create the organism specified by the genome and not by the original host cell.
And if we are worried about playing God, think again about Dolly. Sheep, cattle, pigs, chickens and our crops are not natural at all, they were genetically modified, and profoundly so, by breeding experiments conducted thousands of years ago by the first pastoralists and agriculturalists. We have been changing the genomic population of earth on a vast scale for thousands of years.
A final point. As with all cloning, Venter had to insert his synthetic genome into an existing cell, the genetic contents of which had been sucked out. At present, no one knows how to synthesise all of the components of a working cell from scratch, although this may one day be possible.
DNA is superstitiously regarded as the key to everything – the blueprint. This is wrong. Life is a collaboration between the rather passive coding properties of DNA and the dynamic self-organising properties of chemicals such as the lipids that form the walls of animal cells, or the proteins that spontaneously self-assembly to create fibrous structures and lock-and-key shapes for enzymes.
The only part of Venter’s work that did make me smile was his incorporation of an encoded message into the genome. Any researcher cracking this watermark code will find an email address to write to to claim their prize. This is cool but again it won’t surprise any biologist. DNA is just a string of letters written on an architectural molecule: In 2006 Paul Rothemund, a young US biologist, made the cover of Nature magazine by creating synthetic DNA smileys. You can write really any structure you like on DNA. You could inscribe a Shakespeare sonnet in a genome if you were so minded.
Venter’s coup is a huge success in terms of publicity. If it helps him achieve his ambitious and worthwhile ends, fine. But don’t let us get too excited about this over-literal and redundant experiment.