I offer this humble suggestion for Craig Venter. The next time he is asked if he is “playing God,” he might want to ask the questioner what they mean. Venter has just made headlines worldwide for the astonishing feat of creating a microorganism with a wholly synthetic, designed genome. It’s the first ever replicating organism since life on Earth began that has a genome not derived primarily from one or more parent organisms. It is in a sense the first artificial life form.
One could quibble about that, arguing for example that this synthetic bacterium, as described in the journal Science, is not really an original design but more like a slightly simplified and modified copy of a Volkswagen Golf constructed from homemade, scratch-built replica parts, instead of rolling off the Volkswagen assembly line. But that would be churlish: the technical accomplishment is stunning. And it is potentially valuable too, as this stripped-down organism might act as the chassis for all manner of new microbial designs, such as bacteria that make biofuels from grass, or which could clean up the oil-stricken Louisiana wetlands.
Predictably, not everyone is thrilled. Valid questions are being asked about the biosafety aspects of the work, although why any would-be bioterrorist would bother trying to develop a pathogen in this highly speculative and challenging fashion rather than just using those nature has supplied in abundance has not been explained by anyone raising that concern. But it seems remarkable…