Is the Synthetic Cell about Life?

By Gregory Kaebnick Is the “Synthetic Cell” about Life? A bioethicist explores the soul of Venter’s new life form and of his experiment © 2010 Francesco Francavilla / The announcement that the J. Craig Venter Institute has succeeded (finally) in synthesizing the genome of Mycoplasma mycoides—inserting it into a cell of Mycoplasma capricolum whose genome had been removed, and creating a fully functioning My

By | July 1, 2010

Is the “Synthetic Cell” about Life?

A bioethicist explores the soul of Venter’s new life form and of his experiment

© 2010 Francesco Francavilla /

The announcement that the J. Craig Venter Institute has succeeded (finally) in synthesizing the genome of Mycoplasma mycoides—inserting it into a cell of Mycoplasma capricolum whose genome had been removed, and creating a fully functioning Mycoplasma mycoides—has been heralded as the moment that science finally took the magic out of life. Venter has said that the achievement has changed the definition of life. Bioethicist Art Caplan, a friend of mine, thinks it puts forever to rest the idea that living things are “endowed with some sort of special power, force, or property.” It is conclusive proof that life is nothing more than interacting chemicals.

The achievement is arguably a landmark moment in science, but it’s not a philosophical watershed.

First, as many have noted, the technical accomplishment is not quite what the JCVI press release claimed. It’s hard to see this as a synthetic species, or a synthetic organism, or a synthetic cell; it’s a synthetic genome of Mycoplasma mycoides, which is familiar enough. David Baltimore was closer to the truth when he told the New York Times that the researchers had not created life so much as mimicked it. It might be still more accurate to say that the researchers mimicked one part and borrowed the rest.

The explanation from the Venter camp is that the genome took over the cell, and since the genome is synthetic, therefore the cell is synthetic. But this assumes a strictly top-down control structure that some biologists now question. Why not say instead that the genome and the cell managed to work out their differences and collaborate, or even that the cell adopted the genome (and its identity)? Do we know enough to say which metaphor is most accurate?

For the sake of argument, let’s grant that JCVI created a synthetic cell. This is when we must address Caplan’s question. Does creating life in a lab demystify it?

In one sense, scientists have been “creating life” for a long time. Every time gametes are combined in a test tube to create embryos, life is created. In another sense, this is not “creating life,” it is only “creating a living organism,” which does not amount to the same thing as creating life unless you already believe that life is nothing more than interacting chemicals. If you believe life involves a special spiritual spark, the breath of God, the wisp of vapor that dementors almost sucked out of Sirius Black, well: creating an organism is not necessarily tantamount to creating that. That’s not just life, but Life, and nothing that happens in the lab will tell us much about it.

Consider, in keeping with the title of this new column, a thought experiment: would a person created through cloning have a soul? This question arose when the Clinton-era National Bioethics Advisory Commission was considering the ethics of cloning, and though it’s hard to believe in retrospect, there was actually a little chin-scratching about it. I submit that if there are such things as souls at all, then people created through cloning have them, too. By analogy, whatever special properties we find in microbial life generally will be found in the life of a synthesized microbe as well. In short, how an organism comes into being does not tell us how to understand the life that the organism possesses.

This is not to say that the JCVI experiment raises no interesting or difficult philosophical questions. Here’s one—though it’s a question that arises in some form with every biotechnology and human industry advance: how much do we want to remake the natural world? Synthetic biology by definition is about remaking the world. If we are careless, our newly created organisms might themselves remake the world in unintended ways. But if we manage them carefully, our engineered creatures may help rehabilitate a world that we’ve mindlessly plundered ever since we assembled ourselves from the primordial muck.

Gregory E. Kaebnick, PhD, is editor of the Hastings Center Report, a journal devoted to issues in bioethics, and a co-investigator in a Hastings Center research project on synthetic biology, funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. He recently testified before Congress in a hearing on synthetic biology.


Avatar of: Russell McDonald

Russell McDonald

Posts: 1

July 2, 2010

I'd like to know how long the cell lived? Is it still living? Are they yet trying to manipulate its lifespan?
Avatar of: Craig Ivory

Craig Ivory

Posts: 1

July 7, 2010

Bruce Willis had one solution, pull the plug on all the Surrogates in his recent movie. Didn't really solve anything. May have caused more problems (note there's been no sequel to the movie, lol). All his solution did was set the clock back a few years which no doubt would lead to more sophisticated iterations of the synth-folks. The movie never asked the question about souls, as they (if they exist) are not needed by these psudo-doozers (Remember Fraggles) that only exist to do what people don't want to do, like, go to work every day. Or do what some people want to do, live in a fantasy world. \nWillis got his wife back, and some scientists have potentially smart slime but so what? Life is what happens when you're not a surrogate.
Avatar of: Greg Pahel

Greg Pahel

Posts: 2

July 7, 2010

I'm so happy to see something in print that describes this experiment accurately. While synthesizing a full genome is a technical accomplishment, even if one of the smallest around, it is not anywhere close to "synthesizing life". It is much more similar to adding or subtracting genes or blocks of genes and this has been going on for many years. We have no idea how to build a working membrane and we aren't even aware of, let alone capable of synthesizing, all of the positional information inherent in a working cell.
Avatar of: Joseph Goska

Joseph Goska

Posts: 6

July 7, 2010

\n?Venter has said that the achievement has changed the definition of life?\n\n What is the new definition?\n For that matter, what was the old definition?\n
Avatar of: Dov Henis

Dov Henis

Posts: 97

July 7, 2010

Life Is Just Another Mass Format\n\nSynthetic Cell Is A Transplant Affair\nLife, WE, Are Just Another Mass Format\n\n\nA. "Is the ?Synthetic Cell? about Life?"\n\n\n\nB. "Is Life A Conglomeration Of Mechanisms?"\n\n\n- The JCVI feat is an impressive technological feat of mastered life mechanisms technologies, coupled with an impressive novel organ transplantation technology. \n\n- Is it human nature, or just "scientist" nature, to accept-prefer the complicated-complex rather than the obvious-rational conception? \n\n- "Genes' Expression Modification" \n \n\nLife is just one of the mass formats in the universe. Life's is the ubiquitous cosmic evolution mode. The mode of a gene's response to the organism culture's feedback signal, i.e. "replicate without change" or "replicate with change" in case of proven augmented energy constrainment by the offspring, is the mode of Life's normal evolution, which is the mode of evolution universally, the mode of cosmic evolution. \n\n\nDov Henis\n(Comments From The 22nd Century)\n03.2010 Updated Life Manifest \n\nCosmic Evolution Simplified\n\nGravity Is The Monotheism Of The Cosmos\n\nEOTOE, Embarrassingly obvious TOE, expanding the horizon beyond Darwin And Einstein \n
Avatar of: john salerno

john salerno

Posts: 24

July 21, 2010

Here's a much better thought experiment: do you, and does anyone else, have a soul? Providing even a scrap of evidence that such a thing exists would make me more inclined to listen to idle speculation about the existence of souls in cloned humans. Maybe next we can all contemplate how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. \nA major problem in this country (the US) is the conflation of religious doctrines with ethics and law. It has raised the abortion debate, which hinges on the largely unspoken question of when these souls people assume exit enter the human body, from a relatively minor issue to one which has distorted the politics of the country for years. The destructive power of these unsupportable assumptions can be enormous.
Avatar of: Fred Schaufele

Fred Schaufele

Posts: 52

July 21, 2010

Decades ago (1985), we received our very first DNA synthesizer. Although it could deliver only small fragments of 15-20 nucleotides, a colleague of mine had the insanely strong desire to re-create the SV40 genome, transfect it into cells and thereby create synthetic life. He was talked out of it partly because it would have required the annual budget of the lab at those days' synthesis costs and partly because of the concern that the synthetic errors might allow the outgrowth of a potentially dangerous mutant virus.\n\nThe motivation of my colleague, and I suspect that of Craig Ventner too, ranged from 'it'd be cool' to 'I just got to know it can be done' to 'why not be the first to do it'. Today, it might also include 'maybe I'll get a call from the New York Times'. I suspect those were the same motivating factors for the technological tour-de-force of the Ventner synthetic project. Any blather about testing whether there are souls, etc is all horse-poop compared to the straight 'I just gotta do it and I have the resources to do it'.

July 21, 2010

We must be careful when manipulating organisms. Nature has its own way to creat an organism and if we do not follow the same path, we do not what consequences will bring in the future. Perhaps it will be wise to wait until scientific knowledge in the subject develops more. We had been unable to even come up with a good definition of life. By other side, I agree that this experiment did not create life, it just manipulate some parts.
Avatar of: Dov Henis

Dov Henis

Posts: 97

July 23, 2010

Venter?s New "Life Form",\nPlain Ignorance\n\n\n"Is the ?Synthetic Cell? about Life?"\nA bioethicist explores the soul of Venter?s new life form and of his experiment\n\n\n- "Heralded as the moment that science finally took the magic out of life."\n* What magic is there in life? All life forms are mass formats comprising constrained energy. They ingest energy in order to survive as long as possible, to postpone their own conversion to energy that fuels the ongoing cosmic expansion. Where/what is the magic? Replication? \n\n- Venter has said that his achievement has changed the definition of life.\n* IMO my suggestion of the nature of life mass format is THE presently most updated scientific conception. I wonder what Venter's definitions of life are for the prior and after the ?Synthetic Cell?.\n\nA cell is a construction comprising resident life primal RNA genes and a variety of organs evolved by them. Archaic RNA genes were independent bare floating organisms, energized by direct solar radiation. Cells, cellular membranes, including the outer membrane, are organs evolved by the resident RNA genes. Genomes, DNA or RNA, are likewise functional organs evolved by the resident RNA genes.\n\nLife is, by our sensory conception, a virtual reality affair. Religion and "spiritualty" are virtual reality tools for going through life. The purpose of our life is ours to formulate and set. It derives solely from our cognition, which is a biologic entity. \n\n\nDov Henis\n(Comments From The 22nd Century)\n03.2010 Updated Life Manifest \n\nCosmic Evolution Simplified\n\nGravity Is The Monotheism Of The Cosmos\n\nEOTOE, Embarrassingly obvious TOE, expanding the horizon beyond Darwin And Einstein \n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 107

July 24, 2010

Venter and Caplan have each made a career out of grandstanding. Their target audience is not the readers of The Scientist, but rather the general public via the mass media, who are drawn to the most grandiose statements. Venter and Caplan both understand this very well. I admire excellence, and they are both very good at what they do. But I don't consider it science.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 77

July 25, 2010

A better question to ask, requiring little thought, is: Can we ever know whether we have a soul or not?\n\nIf not, Pascal's Pensee, regarding religion and soul, may serve an individual in determining their course in life but, certainly it does not suffice for determining public policy - for the reasons you state and others. That a substantial portion of our ill-educated electorate believes that is does leads them to elect representatives who do and, therein, lies our problem.\n\nIf so, let those who believe we can know get on with it and let's see the test protocol with interpretations of all possible outcomes.


Posts: 37

July 27, 2010

This discussion belongs in a long tradition coming from a time when a lot of weird things like spontaneous generation or transmogrification had been the main doctrine for millenia. This was refuted by Pasteur and already in 1668 by Francesco Redi who showed that maggots did not arise spontaneously on meat but from flies eggs. It was believed that organic molecules could only come from living organisms and not be synthesized from inorganic starting materials; refuted by Wöhler in 1828 when he synthesized urea from ammonium cyanate.\n\nIn 1955, Heinz Fraenkel-Conrat and Robley Williams showed that purified TMV RNA and its coat protein assemble by themselves to functional viruses. Pure chemistry, but of course maybe viruses are not life forms and do not have a soul. \n\nSo the frontiers continue to be moved back so that after JCV-1 the soul presumably only has the membrane or cell wall where it may hide. Or is it still the battle cry "the whole is more than the sum of its components"; not completely to be ignored with respect to kinetic/dynamic factors.\n\nShould the Soul then be defined eventually as something without a physical component? This would be nice. Then the scientists could all get on with doing more interesting science without such fanciful and wayward distractions.
Avatar of: Anand Mani

Anand Mani

Posts: 1

August 10, 2010

There is danger in defining life as purely the interaction of chemicals. It reduces all living things to mere things in the minds of so many. I'll grant that the creation of complex life is very far away but protections against the excesses of human nature need to be contemplated now. And not in a "Oh Noes! Somebody think of the bunnies!" (full disclosure: emotionally I lean in that direction but I'm a realist)\n\nA created worker imbued with feelings and emotions so that it does a better job becomes something that can be tormentable--legally --because it is a thing. One need only look at childrens' shelters and animal shelters to see this ugliest of human propensities. How much further must we go before people are treated with the same view to rights as lab animals? Even now, our law defines animals as barely above things--a family dog's contribution as a family member isn't taken into account in settlements where the animal is killed by accident or in error.\n\nThis is something that will have to be watched and guided by very clear heads.

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