This ‘new life form’ is just reassembled car parts

By Dr Nick Gay, a reader in cell signalling and development at the department of biochemistry, University of Cambridge (THE GUARDIAN, 10/10/07):

The Guardian’s front-page story reported Craig Venter’s claims that he is “poised to announce the creation of the first new artificial life form on Earth” (I am creating artificial life, declares US gene pioneer, October 6). On the face of it this seems to be a spectacular advance. Unfortunately the truth is rather different.To provide an analogy, it is as if he had selected a set of car parts, assembled them into a car and then claimed to have invented the car. It will not “herald a giant leap forward in the development of designer genomes”. It is merely the crudest and most facile kind of reductionism, an experimental approach that provides no insight whatever into the fundamental nature of cellular processes.

In fact the ability to carry out such a project relies on the work of thousands of scientists who have studied the molecular biology of the cell during the last 50 years and defined the function of basic cellular processes such as the replication of DNA and the conversion of RNA into proteins, and developed key methods such as the chemical synthesis of nucleic acids. Simply reassembling these cellular components into an “artificial” organism will not further our understanding of these life processes.

Your article also claims that his work “could unlock the door to new energy sources and techniques to combat global warming”. It is certainly possible that the plant enzyme responsible for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere could be engineered to be more efficient, but this would not need Venter’s artificial life – it could be achieved easily with the existing methods of genetic manipulation.

In another article on the same day you referred to the sequencing of Venter’s own genome (Gene genie, October 6). This is an obvious, if somewhat egocentric, thing to do and a number of other single-genome sequences are in progress. But the idea alluded to, that you could predict the date of your death using this information, is absurd. Most human diseases are caused by the action of many genes in a complex interaction with the environment. The origin and progression of these polygenic diseases is poorly understood, and sequence information alone will not provide the answers.

It should also be noted that the ability to sequence whole genomes has little to do with Venter. It derives from the work of Fred Sanger at Cambridge in the 1970s. Venter, remember, was the man who tried to patent the human genome sequence and then exploit it for profit.

It is a feature of great scientific advances that they open up whole new areas of knowledge to view. This is well illustrated by the award this week of the Nobel prize for medicine to Martin Evans, Mario Capecchi and Oliver Smithies for the discovery and exploitation of stem cells.

These findings have led to a revolution in our understanding of cell and developmental biology and offer the prospect of new therapies for human diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Venter’s “artificial life” is not in the same league.