On May 20th, J. Craig Venter and his team at J.C Venter Institute announced the creation of a cell controlled by a synthetic genome in a paper published in SCIENCE. As science historian George Dyson points out, “from the point of view of technology, a code generated within a digital computer is now self-replicating as the genome of a line of living cells. From the point of view of biology, a code generated by a living organism has been translated into a digital representation for replication, editing, and transmission to other cells.”
This new development is all about operating on a large scale. “Reading the genetic code of a wide range of species,” the paper says, “has increased exponentially from these early studies. Our ability to rapidly digitize genomic information has increased by more than eight orders of magnitude over the past 25 years.” This is a big scaling up in our technological abilities. Physicist Freeman Dyson, commenting on the paper, notes that “the sequencing and synthesizing of DNA give us all the tools we need to create new forms of life.” But it remains to be seen how it will serve in practice.
One question is whether or not a DNA sequence alone is enough to generate a living creature. One way of reading the paper suggests this doesn’t seem to be the case because of the use of old microplasma cells into which the DNA was inserted — that this is not about “creating” life” since the new life requires an existing living recipient cell. If this is the case, what is the chance of producing something de novo? The paper might appear to be about a somewhat banal technological feat. The new techniques build on existing capabilities. What else is being added, what is qualitatively new?