Genomics pioneer J. Craig Venter has been trying to create synthetic life for 15 years. This past spring his research team finally pulled it off—at least by Venter’s definition. Using a genome synthesized from chemical components, the researchers rebooted a bacterial cell to run on a new set of DNA instructions. “Frankenstein” headlines quickly followed, and President Obama demanded a review from the White House bioethics commission. But whether the hijacked cell is really a synthetic life-form remains debatable. Biotech experts point out that, aside from some clever watermarks the researchers stuck into the genetic sequence, the synthetic cells are identical to a natural species.
Theoretically, the project’s success does open the door to the creation of remixed genomes that nature has never seen. Venter hopes that such genetic mashups will someday be used to manufacture products such as an efficient biofuel; a project with ExxonMobil is already under way. Venter’s team is also collaborating with the National Institutes of Health to synthesize the components of every known flu virus, so that creating a new flu vaccine would merely be a matter of pulling bottles off the shelf. For now, though, synthetic biologists know next to nothing about how to design a genetic code for an entirely novel organism. Harvard geneticist George Church wrote of the latest feat, “Printing out a copy of an ancient text isn’t the same as understanding the language.” But Venter remains buoyant. “This is the baby step that makes all the other steps more realistically feasible,” he says.