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Creation of life? Not really.

My initial reaction to being told by the media that Craig Venter has created life and is playing God was scepticism, so I was glad to hear this morning that this is the view of Sir Paul Nurse, a British cell biologist and geneticist who is a Nobel Prize recipient and the new President of the Royal Society.

In effect, what has been achieved is a glorified form of genetic modification - genetic modification on a large scale. Venter has taken the DNA from a very simple bacterium, reconstituted it artificially, and inserted it into another bacterium whose DNA had been removed. This second bacterium went on to reproduce and function.

This is certainly very impressive and may have important practical results in the future, though Nurse seemed rather uncertain about that. It could also conceivably have security implications, if it were used to manufacture a biological weapon, although existing technnology would probably be better for that purpose. But it doesn't amount to the creation of life.

To create a real artificial cell biologists would have to do a great deal more. They would have to manufacture all the complex machinery that exists outside the nucleus and make it work together correctly, which is more difficult by several orders of magnitude. Since we don't yet know how all this functions we are a very long way away from being able to do it artificially. Nurse doesn't see it happening in the foreseeable future though he acknowledges that it is possible in principle.

In other words, a scientific advance has been over-hyped by the media. Now there's a real surprise.


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