Franken-cell: Plagiarism or Creation of Life?
The news was full of it–Venter Labs made a self-replicating synthetic cell. Some have even gone so far as to claim they created artificial life (the Economist’s headline is “And Man Made Life”)! If this is true, it is headline news and certainly worthy of all the attention it has received. But, what exactly did they do?
To understand, we need a quick review of cell biology. Basically, imagine that cells are cities. In that case, they all contain instructions in their head office (nucleus) for making all the buildings and machines that are located in that city. The instructions are written in ink (DNA). When a structure needs to be built, these instructions are accessed by a previously existing and intricate system of data retrieval, transcribed so that they can leave the head office, and acted upon. Once the machine is made, it is loaded into a previously existing transport system and taken where it needs to be, assembled, and more. This is vastly simplified, but gives an idea of the multi-layered information network necessary.
So, what did Venter labs do? First, they copied the DNA instructions from an existing bacterial cell, then they made another copy of this using component parts of the DNA (an admittedly huge task since the code was over a million base pairs long). Next, they exchanged the DNA they synthesized with DNA that was in a cell from a different species. And, finally, they found that this new cell, with its information retrieval system etc. still in place, could use the synthetic DNA.
Let’s put it even more simply. Mommy writes a sentence on a piece of paper. Junior takes magnetic letters from a bag and copies the same sentence on the fridge. Daddy comes home and can read the sentence that Mommy originally wrote. Junior is so proud that he publishes it. The media finds out and says that Junior invented–what?
In conclusion, yes, Venter labs did a huge amount of work and should be proud that they were able to copy the information found in a bacterial genome and make another genome from scratch (if you don’t count already having the component pieces of DNA). But, did they, as they claim “write the software of life”? No, not unless you count plagiarism as an original idea.