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  • Artificial Life? Nope.

    Posted by Shannon Love on October 6th, 2007 (All posts by )

    Seems to be a lot buzz about scientific pioneer Craig Venter’s claim to have created “artificial life” in his lab.

    It makes for a great story save for the small matter of it not being anywhere close to true.

    One would assume that artificial life would arise purely from human engineering and that it would not hold descent from any existing evolved lifeform on earth. Venter’s creation doesn’t fit that criteria.

    Instead, Venter’s “artificial life” is really a stripped-down minimalistic version of the naturally evolved Mycoplasma genitalium. Venter didn’t create any new genes. Instead he removed genes from an existing organism until he trimmed it down to the bare number needed to keep the organism alive. He did rebundle the genes into a novel chromosome, but arguably the natural laws governing chromosome formation dictated the structure of the new chromosome once its compositional genes changed.

    I do not mean to say that Venter has not done something new, interesting and possibly very useful. However, he hasn’t done something with the same ramifications as creating “artificial life.” Venter merely performed an extreme version of altering the genetic makeup of an existing organism, something that genetic engineers have done for decades and that plant and animal breeders have done for centuries.

    We must make the distinction between rearranged natural organisms and true artificial organisms. Artificial lifeforms present an entirely different collection of benefits, hazards and ethical concerns than do altered natural lifeforms. For example, as a natural lifeform, Mycoplasma genitalium comes automatically with a complement of environmental predators. The immune systems of humans and other animals already possess defenses against it. A true artificial lifeform, however, would not already have predators or immune systems geared up to confront it. If it escaped into the ecosystem it might well run wild.

    I wish the media would spend more time examining the self-promoting claims of press releases instead of just egging them on for the sake of a shocking headline. The modern world saturates people with information for which they do not possess the specialist knowledge needed to instantly separate truth from hyperbole. Inherent ignorance will force most people to debate the press release headline — artificial life — and not the truth — radically altered natural life.