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It’s life Jim, but not as we know it!

In May earlier this year almost every newspaper the world over was headlined with the words 'Scientists make artificial life'.

Well, erm, actually, no. But still, nice try!

So what is all the fuss about?

Scientists have created the first cell controlled by a 'synthetic' genome. A genome is a set of instructions coded into DNA that control the workings of a cell; they act very much like a computer program controlling a very complex machine. Researchers copied an already existing natural genome. The cells that they're working with are bacteria. Even these simple creatures have huge genomes. A typical bacteria will contain about five million base pairs (5Mbp). Again, the computer analogy is quite useful, this is about 5 Mbits of information. A lot of instructions!

4 Bottles and a Machine

Four bottles and a machine

The really significant breakthrough is that although this genome is basically a copy of natural genome it was not created by a living cell (this is how all the other countless genomes made in the last 4000-million-year history of life on earth have been made). So, for the very first time a genome was created from four bottles of chemicals using a machine. This is an amazing first and a stunning achievement for the scientists.

Is it really artificial life?

Nature still wrote the programme, mankind just assembled it. It's a bit like claiming that the chap running a printing press turning out 'The complete works of Shakespeare' actually wrote Hamlet. To be fair to the scientists involved, it was not them that came up with the ridiculous headlines, it's just our scientifically daft media.

To be, or not to be – that is the question!

Still, don't underestimate what this may mean for the future. Soon, people will be learning how to write their own code, it certainly won't be Hamlet to start with, but one day?

Bacteria Book

The potential usefulness of this technique is massive. Imagine being able to design your own bacteria. Science fiction? It is at the moment, but maybe not for long.

One for the history books

Steam, electricity, genetic engineering? Each breakthrough revolutionised the world we live in. Genetic engineering may be the greatest revolution of them all. What could we build? The possibilities are limited only by the human imagination.

One day we may have a data base that will contain all the genes from the natural world. Imagine having a 'Lego' set that allowed you to put the building blocks of life together in any way you wished. It could be a bit interesting! Nature has come up with billions of solutions to problems we haven't even thought of yet, and we would have access to them all. Don't expect it to be easy. Almost all the organisms nature has come up with have failed. Only the tiniest few succeed and reproduce. Our attempts at building organisms are likely to be just as shaky, at first.

Ethical issues

All these possibilities lie in the future. The future does tend to arrive faster than most people think though. Question is are the scientists playing god? One day it's very likely that they will be but not yet.

This not an excuse to put off thinking about the ethics of life creation. It will happen one day, we will have a power over life that was once attributed to a supreme being only. We need to behave wisely. Wisdom is not exactly thick on the ground as far as human beings are concerned. We are definitely clever, but wise?

Crazy Scientist

The big issue with this kind of science is that it is small. It's not like building an atomic bomb where the resources of whole nation need to be mobilised. The costs will be relatively modest and facilities unassuming. No one is going to be able to just say no, we are not going to try this, it's too much to ask. Someone, somewhere will. Let's just hope it's someone blessed with a little wisdom.

The big questions:

What do we mean by synthetic life?

What is a genome?

How can genes be assembled?

Will we ever make synthetic life?

How much will we be able to modify already existing creatures?

Is this 'playing god', and does it matter if we are?

What are the ethical questions involved?