Why Craig Venter's Creation of Artificial Life Didn't Spark an Ethical Firestorm

Last Updated May 27, 2010 9:59 AM EDT

Venter synthetic lifeLast week's announcement that scientists had created synthetic life didn't spark the firestorm of ethical debate one might have expected.

Sure, it got coverage in the major news outlets -- TIME, Newsweek, USA Today, the WSJ -- but it didn't get many front page placements. And as far as public interest, the top Google searches were reserved for the resignation of intelligence director Dennis Blair, the Air India crash, and Old Navy's store hours during its flip flop sale. Synthetic life didn't even crack the top 20.

I doubt it was for lack of trying. Craig Venter, the scientist behind the experiment, is not what you'd call a humble, introverted kind of guy. This is the man who engaged the government in a race to crack the human genetic code, spurring the sluggish Human Genome Project into high gear and creating a breathtaking race to the finish. Later, Venter published the first personal genome: his own.

Venter's press release about creating a synthetic cell wasn't cloaked in scientific jargon designed to elude the public:

--its genome was designed in the computer and brought to life through chemical synthesis, without using any pieces of natural DNA--
Meanwhile, at a press conference, Venter said:
This is the first self-replicating species we have on this planet whose parent is a computer.
Was America just too busy with the Lost series finale to notice Venter's achievement? Or maybe folks didn't get overly excited because Venter's synthetic DNA was loaded into cytoplasm contributed by a regular bacterium, making it not wholly a creation of new life from scratch. The Vatican's stance was the scientists had not created life, they'd just "replaced one of its motors."

Or maybe folks have simply realized that scientific breakthroughs take decades to contribute meaningfully to our lives. Ten years after sequencing the human genome, we're moving closer to personalized medicine, but we've barely tapped its potential. As BioWorld noted, for the time being, the creation of the synthetic cell is "nothing more than what they could have picked up faster and cheaper from goats" (which harbor the bacteria synthetically created).

Some folks retained a sense of humor about the breakthrough. Satire site NewsBiscuit reported that the first synthetic life form "accused God of 'playing science' and 'meddling with things He cannot possibly understand.'"

DNA photo by Flickr user ynse, CC.

  • Trista Morrison

    Trista Morrison is a staff writer at BioWorld Today, a daily newspaper that