Venter (who, of course, was made famous by the human genome project) has apparently created the first artificial life form. A bacterium with a synthetic genome.
What has really happened here is (1) Venter has built a bacterial genome with a collection of known bacterial genes and used yeast to arrange those genes into a functional genome, and (2) he has put that genome in an emptied bacterial cell.
Creating the bacterium as Venter has done is like building a really small kit car. It is impressive, don’t get me wrong, I couldn’t build a kit car either. But it is not momentous.
The Miller-Urey Experiment, in 1952, famously demonstrated that the conditions on Earth at the dawn of time (believed to be: no oxygen, lots of ammonia, methane and water and UV light) favoured chemical reactions which produced organic compounds – amino acids and the like – which are the building blocks of life.
I have always thought that was quite cool.
The most interesting thing about the evolution of early lifeforms (presumed to be bits of DNA-like or RNA-like material) is how the primitive beasties survived without the most basic distinction between inside and outside the organism (the cell membrane). This is because there is a big jump between free floating amino acids and nucleic acids and even the most simple self-replicating lifeforms.
It is a chicken and egg scenario, regarding what came first and how it began replicating itself. However, Venter hasn’t shed any light on this issue, he has just grown a pigeon in a chicken egg.
Bacterial cells have all sorts of funky features and chemistry going on in addition to their genome: cell walls, membranes (to the nerds, I know bacteria don’t have intracellular compartmentalisation, but there are membrane surfaces in there nonetheless) and enzymes that turn DNA into proteins. Venter borrowed all this stuff from existing bacteria, hardly creating a new entity from scratch. If he had a free floating gene that replicated itself outside a PCR machine that would be far more impressive.
Venter has proven that he can put a Toyota engine in a Ford. What I want to see is the first car that can drive from Melbourne to Sydney without a chassis, or wheels.