The US biologist who created the world’s first synthetic cell has not created life, according to scientists.
Listen to a radio report on the synthetic cell
Last week Dr Craig Venter, a multi-millionaire maverick scientist, announced that he had manufactured a synthetic cell using man-made DNA.
Dr Venter, who runs the J Craig Venter Institute, hailed the discovery, saying: “This is the first synthetic cell that’s been made, and we call it synthetic because the cell is totally derived from a synthetic chromosome”.
But now a number of scientists have warned that the creation of a synthetic cell is not the same as creating life.
David Baltimore, a geneticist at California Institute of Technology, warned: “To my mind Craig has somewhat overplayed the importance of this”.
He added: “He has not created life, only mimicked it”.
Jim Collins, a bioengineer at Boston University, said: “What they have created is an organism with a synthesised natural genome.
“But it doesn’t represent the creation of life from scratch or the creation of a new life form”.
In order to create the synthetic cell Dr Venter created an artificial version of the DNA for a very simple form of bacteria.
This synthetic DNA was then inserted into a cell from which the original DNA had been removed.
But Dr Gerald Joyce, a professor of molecular biology at the Scripps Research Institute, also refuted allegations that a new form of life had been created.
He said: “Of course that’s not right – its ancestor is a biological life form”.
And Dr Donald Bruce, an ethicist and theologian, insisted that Dr Venter has not created synthetic life because “life was already there”.
Dr Bruce also urged caution for future research, saying: “Humans are only finite and we are far from perfect. The real ‘playing God’ question is: do we pass over either any moral barrier, or exceed our finite and imperfect abilities, in doing this?”
The synthetic cell was the culmination of 15 years’ work, and press reports indicate that the breakthrough cost £27.7 million.
Earlier this year pro-lifers expressed alarm after scientists created dozens of human embryos with three genetic parents.
Researchers at Newcastle University used embryos originally donated for IVF to create the new embryos, but these were destroyed within a matter of days to comply with fertility laws.
The experiments were designed to help women suffering from genetic problems affecting their eggs, which could cause their children to die soon after birth.
But concerns were raised that the experiment completely distorted the “natural process”, and that the research may not actually help women.