Genetic technology: did scientists play God?

May 21, 2010 • 7:17 am

Of course they did: a group of scientists intelligently designed a complex creature and brought it into being. Isn’t that what creationists say that God is supposed to have done?  So the answer to this question, which is being raised all over the internet (see here, here, and here, for example), is “yes.”

But whether Craig Venter and his colleagues created a synthetic bacterium in order to play God is doubtful.  Over at the Guardian, where for some reason Andrew Brown is allowed to continue injecting nonsense into the ether, he sees the synthetic organism as “another triumph of the only major scientific programme driven from the beginning by explicit atheism.

This is remarkably stupid, even for Brown.  Yes, Venter is an atheist, and so was Francis Crick, who Brown sees as the father of the synthetic life program.  But it’s clear that the work culminating in today’s remarkable paper in Science was driven not by an idea to disprove God, or replace him, but by two other factors.

The first is simple curiosity—to see if we really could synthesize a working genome.  H. L. Mencken described this as the strongest motivation of the scientist:

What actually moves him is his unquenchable curiosity–his boundless, almost pathological thirst to penetrate the unknown, to uncover the secret, to find out what has not been found out before. His prototype is not the liberator releasing slaves, the good Samaritan lifting up the fallen, but the dog sniffing tremendously at an infinite series of rat-holes.

And, really, think of what we’ve done: using only the 3 pounds of jelly in our heads, and materials wrested from the Earth and laboriously transformed, we’ve been able to make a genome—one that can completely direct a living organism.  This is not the same as creating life, for that’s still a way off.  But it’s nevertheless amazing, and we don’t grasp how truly amazing it is because we’re inured to the miracles of biotechnology.  But think: how close is a chimp to doing this? They don’t even have PCR machines!

But Venter and his team are no fools, and they know that their methodology, which took a decade to perfect, can have enormous payoffs.  We can now make genomes to our desire, and put in them any genes we want, and then use them to build organisms.  We’ll have to start with simple ones like bacteria, but even there the social benefits are immense: the use of artificial bacteria to produce biofuels, for example.  Accompanying all this must be stringent government and public oversight, of course—even Venter recognizes that.  But still, even if this project simply stopped here, it would be a triumph of the human imagination, like putting men on the Moon.

But enough.  I won’t go over the technical details of this achievement: the background has been discussed by Carl Zimmer at The Loom (he’ll undoubtedly do a big post today), and the research by Elizabeth Pennisi at Science and P. Z. at Pharyngula.

I’ll just post a Quick Guide (apologies again to Current Biology):

What is Mycoplasma?

Mycoplasma is a type of bacterium that lacks cell walls (thereby rendering it impervious to antibiotics like penicillin, which work by hindering cell-wall synthesis, preventing bacteria from dividing).  M. mycoides causes lung disease in cattle and other ruminants.

Why did they use this group of bacteria?

Because it’s the creature with the smallest genome that can still grow independently in the lab.  A small genome makes synthesis easier, and it has to grow independently in the lab because under all definitions that is a living creature. (There is still a controversy about whether viruses, whose genomes have already been synthesized, qualify as “living” creatures, for they parasitize the genomes of other creatures for replication and coat synthesis, and cannot grow by themselves in the lab.)

What did Venter’s team do?

They synthesized the chromosome of one bacteria, Mycoplasma mycoides, from scratch, and injected that artificial chromosome into dead cells of a related species, Mycoplasma capricolum.  The artificial chromosome worked properly, reviving those dead cells and giving them the ability to grow, metabolize, and divide.  In effect, they artificially built the entire genome of a species and showed that it could work in a manner similar to that of the naturally-occurring genome.

What’s so great about that?

First of all, it’s a stunning technical achievement.  The M. mycoides genome is a million base pairs long, and getting that all correct, and putting the DNA together in the proper linear order, took a decade of work.  (A much smaller viral chromosome had been synthesized a few years ago.)  The chromosome was assembled in yeast, and in several stages, each of which was fraught with problems.  Finally, the assembled chromosome was put into the recipient cell. Each of these steps required developing a new technology.  And of course, as I mentioned above, there is the potential of enormous benefits of genetically engineered organisms.

Couldn’t this kind of tinkering cause big problems?

Yes, of course.  If this kind of work was done without the proper guidelines and oversights, pathogenic or destructive bacteria could accidentally wreak havoc.  Nobody, including Venter, claims that scientists should be allowed to do this kind of work willy nilly. In the case of the Science report, the researchers were careful to disarm all the genes in M. mycoides that were pathological.  But clearly new guidelines are in order.

Did Venter’s team create life?

No.  They created an artificial genome that was able to direct a living organism.  But that stretch of DNA would have been absolutely useless had it not been injected into a cell that already had the proteins and protein-synthesizing system that could take the DNA and use it to assemble new cells and proteins, as well as to allow the DNA to divide and make new cells. (This is a complicated process that requires many enzymes and other proteins.)  After a few generations, all the protein-synthetic, metabolic, and DNA-replicating machinery finally derived from the synthetic genome, so in that sense there was now synthetic life.  But it could not have started without enzymes, ribosomes, and other biological material from the “dead” recipient species, M. capricolum.

Indeed, this is the whole problem of how life appeared in the first place.  The biggest obstacle in understanding how life evolved is that DNA needs proteins in order to build a cell and to replicate itself,  but those proteins can’t be made without DNA in the first place. It’s a chicken-and-egg problem.  The problem of the origin of life is the problem of how the DNA/protein system coevolved.  Venter’s team circumvented this problem by providing the starting materials: the proteins and cellular matrix that helped the artificial DNA start replicating and making proteins.

Is real artificial life around the corner, then?

Probably not for a while.  We have to solve the chicken-and-egg problem first. That is, we need to synthesize a DNA or RNA molecule that can, out of a vat of supplied but simple chemicals, construct a cell that has the proteins and other materials necessarily to make the whole thing a self-contained organism that can grow and divide in the lab.  That is a long way off. I don’t know if I’ll see it in my lifetime, but I am confident that my students will in theirs.

When we do that, will we then be playing God?

I don’t like this whole notion of “playing God” because I don’t believe in one.  If that question means, “Can we create life from off-the-shelf chemicals?” then the answer is “almost certainly yes.”  But we must add that this creation of life in a high-tech lab bears no resemblance to how scientists think life originated four billion years ago.  That happened in some “warm little pond,” using chemicals much simpler than the ones Venter used. It was a process that took eons, and resulted in an organism much simpler than a Mycoplasma.  We should not think that Venter’s group was somehow mimicking the origin of life.  They weren’t, and didn’t intend to.

Will we ever be able to figure out, then, how life began?

I don’t think so.  The traces of that life are long gone, although remnants exist in things like the genetic code of modern organisms. But those first replicating creatures left no fossils, and there are many ways they could have originated. We’re gradually developing an understanding of how they might have come into being—RNA, for example, seems to be a better candidate than DNA for the first “replicator”—but we’ll never know for sure.  There are some questions that science simply can’t answer, because the substrate for our understanding isn’t there.  But that does not mean that God did it!

How will creationists react to this achievement?

I predict several responses. First, that it doesn’t mimic the creation of life the way that God did it (either poofing complex species of organisms into being ex nihilo or, if you’re a theistic evolutionist, evolving the first cell).  Or, they’ll say that this proves intelligent design because the Venter creature was, after all, intelligently designed. But, as I said, this experiment was not conducted to mimic the evolutionary origin of life.

But what creationists cannot get around is the increasing demonstration that life is merely an immensely complicated chemical reaction.  Venter’s team made a genome able to direct and support life using off-the-shelf nucleotides and some other reagents.  Eventually, in a few decades, they’ll be able to make a fully living bacterium in the same way.  And then we will have played God, at least the way religious people mean it.  And maybe, before our own species gets incinerated by the Sun in five billion years, we may even make conscious creatures.  That will be the final blow to mind-body duality.

Life is just complex chemicals—nothing more, nothing less.  Venter and his team have gone a long way toward showing this.  And I’m very glad that I was alive to see it.

UPDATE:  Carl Zimmer has put up a post about this, noting (and I didn’t know this) that one of the “watermarks” Venter’s group put in the synthetic DNA was a line from James Joyce!  Of course I would have preferred the last line from “The Dead,” the finest prose piece ever written in English: “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”


Gibson, D. G. et al. 2010. Creation of a bacterial cell controlled by a chemically synthesized genome. Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1190719

39 thoughts on “Genetic technology: did scientists play God?

  1. Ack. What’s the point of my doing a big post today, when you and so many others have laid out all the issues so clearly? Sometimes I feel like the blogosphere doesn’t need any of us in particular. There will always be so many bloggers to handle any subject…

    1. Oh come on, Carl—I can’t do near the job that you can! And when you post on this, I’ll send people over.

    2. You both do terrific jobs. No need to send most of us over, we are already there (and 40+ other places).

      We want more from you Carl 🙂

  2. Here is my freshly coined “Playing God Fallacy”:

    Premise. Doing x is playing God.
    Conclusion. Therefore, no one should do x.

    It is hard to make sense of what it is to play god, but it doesn’t really matter. However you fill in what it means, it isn’t going to follow that we shouldn’t do it. Here are a couple of stabs:

    Suppose playing God means usurping God. Well, for those of us who don’t believe this is impossible for the same reason you can’t usurp Santa. For those who do believe, actual usurpation is impossible as God is all-powerful. Surely it can’t be that bad to try and do impossible things (I just tried to add one and one and get three and nothing bad happened).

    Suppose playing God is doing things that have important consequences without being able to know what they might be. The thing is, we do this all the time. Whether it is in our personal lives, as states, scientists, supreme court justices, etc. If that is what playing God means, we play God a lot and, some of the time, we should (Of course it doesn’t follow that we should be reckless).

    I could go on but I think the point has been made. `Playing God’ is rhetorically successful as a catch-all for a variety of poorly articulated and unserious criticisms. But when you put it in an actual argument, it fails to provide warrant for the desired conclusion.

    (I think this is a fallacy both believes and non-believers can get behind.)

    1. “Suppose playing God means usurping God. Well, for those of us who don’t believe this is impossible for the same reason you can’t usurp Santa.”

      Actually I think a good comeback to the statement is to argue that saying scientists shouldn’t do this research because they are “playing God” is the same as saying that people shouldn’t give gifts to children because they would be “playing Santa.”

  3. It would be interesting to use them for something like the lenski experiment. We may even be able to predict what functions may evolve from knowing what the “preadaptations” already are

    1. You’re right, we won’t be around to see the sun devour the earth but we may have evolved into something else.

  4. I have a very serious objection to the interview. There is really no reason to think that humans will still be around when the planet gets devoured by the sun several billion years from now. We’ll be long extinct. That’s one hell of an assumption.

  5. It is a tremendous achievement and an exiting development!

    PZ’s article [which the above link doesn’t go to, btw] makes IMHO the best analogy when he compare to Wöhler’s synthesis of urea. That speaks of the opportunities opening up as well as to the blow for post-semitic vitalism this is.

    Fo myself I believe I’m most eager to see if Venter, now with a proven technology, can immediately redo the process with the previous minimal synthetic genome his team has claimed to have assembled.

    Not because it will be helpful for technological purposes as much as how it will help illuminate the constraints on the first cellular UCA, and perhaps illuminate the pathways taken beyond the current predicted LUCA.

    did scientists play God?

    The same type of question was put to atheist Venter in a news interview.

    It was noticeable how the quick thinking Venter hesitated to this disrespectful question before supplying a neutral answer through a neutral reinterpretation. Later on he had no problem of dismissing the derogatory term “Synthia” for his cell line, that he purposefully labeled M. mycoides JCVI-syn1.0 to point out the actual evolutionary ancestry of his creation.

    The reason being that he has to explain the moral and other social ramifications of his work. He did that as well as PZ, I believe, when he claims that the added risk is constant (say, bioweapons) but the added benefits goes exponential with the new technology. Roughly true, but true enough.

  6. When physicists create larger atoms from smaller ones, aren’t they “playing God”?

    And as for the ID folks, Venter’s team put their names, three quotes, and other messages in the DNA they produced. If a god really created life on earth, you’d think the least he would have done was signed his work like Venter and his team did.

  7. So I’m not a biologist, but nowadays I’m happily a proper but-not-yet-humble student of astrobiology. Presumably that gives me the balls (audacity to some) to analyze some of the posts questions on biology, if not before.

    Did Venter’s team create life?

    My view of life is different than a cluster of atoms assembled one by one, as the post seem to suggest as implicit definition. It is also different from the NASA definition of both inheritance and metabolism, which presumably is made because the later is easier to observe. Finally, I don’t think that giving bottom-up creation of life the prerogative of easer access to glamorous achievement is necessarily good methodology.

    Defining evolution as Larry Moran does, “a process that results in heritable changes in a population spread over many generations”, we can explicitly understand life as the process of evolution as observed in actual biological populations.

    The cell machinery has been inherited from the first cell on down. But it, as the genome, has been modified (through the genome). As Venter’s et al new genome metabolize and divide, which they do and better than the original in fact, they eventually replace the old machinery.

    In this view virus is life and these cells will become fully “synthetic life” over time, as the new genome proteins replace the old metabolism. (PZ claims over ~ 30 gens, Venter claims he has observed several gens.)

    Actually this is a new man made mode of evolution by Moran’s definition, so one could possibly defend that it is life “as is”.

    The process view is, through its relationship to physics, the most natural and inclusive view.

    We will likely never be able to assemble a cell from pieces only any more than we can build a modern computer from pieces only. Both of them will have to be booted up with their respective software, for very much the analogous reason – it is too difficult to get the initial state correct in hardware assembly. Yet we say that the computer is constructed (synthetic), so we should do the same elsewhere.

    Of course I don’t expect everyone to agree with this. It is solely a methodological question in my eyes. But at least I think if we note that there is still controversy on whether viruses qualify as “living” creatures, we should note that there can be controversy on whether Venter created life or not.

    Will we ever be able to figure out, then, how life began?

    Depends on how you define “figure out”.

    I believe astrobiology will help constrain under which circumstances life develops, by giving access to observations of statistical amounts of biospheres and some of their history. (For example, in decades at the latest astrobiologists expect to observe Earth analogs and their atmospheres, as well as having a better handle on solar system formation.)

    In my view it is enough to know the possible pathways and mechanisms, not the actual ones, in the same way that a phylogeny can never have full resolution on, say, mutational changes. Yet we know phylogenies exist and test evolution, and in the same way we can test abiogenesis some day.

    Also, I note that asking for the exact pathway, on a mutation-for-mutation basis, instead of the most likely set, is akin to asking for synthesis of life on an atom–for-atom basis. When I buy a house I can live without knowing the exact placement of every brick or the exact fiber-for-fiber growth of every tree element in it. I’m fairly certain the building wasn’t constructed by magic!

    1. For example of what I mean, I refer to the Zn world theory of Mulkidjanian et al. They have taken great care to extract and, successfully, test predictions.

      [Actually, that theory takes the pathways from probiotic systems through protobiotic systems all the way up to the RNA world. If it continues to check out and there is no predictive contender, abiogenesis can be considered “figure[d] out”, FWIW.

      But I believe it has problems, such as metal atoms not actually being the catalytic and motor components of ancestral ribozymes but, it seems, sets of pairs of water molecules. And for a theory we certainly can do better.]

  8. Great Post!!
    I have always marveled at believers’ anger at so-called “blasphemy”. To me, this issue as to whether or not science should try to “create” life falls into this broad category.

    If God is all powerful and is, in fact, responsible in some way for the entire Universe, it should be clear that no person can or will ever succeed in such endeavors unless it be “His will” that they do so.

    If, on the other hand, there is/was a “creator”, which has no further awareness or interest in Creation since the initial event (and, therefore neither requires nor “notices” any ritual or worship), then it should follow that scientific endeavors have no impact on the situation either.

    If none of the above is true, religionists who see any scientific endeavor as “playing God”, or in any other way an “attack” upon said Deity, what they are really objecting to is the “attack” upon their dearly held wish that they will somehow, through said observance/worship/self-denial/refusal to see reality cheat their inevitable deaths.

    In any of the above scenarios, there is zero justification to suggest to anyone other than themselves that we are “playing God”, with the obvious implication that this somehow an affront (sin) to said Deity.

  9. Technical question:

    Does this mean that we now no longer can claim that all current life has a common ancestor?

    1. If you ask Venter, he would probably say that isn’t true, since he named the bacteria M. mycoides JCVI-syn1.0, putting it in the same species as the natural one. I bleive he said, besides copy errors, which are in effect mutations, only 14 genes were purposefully eliminated to decrease or remove infection risk from the pathogen.

      And I wouldn’t say so either, see my above comment. It would be a gray area indeed before we could claim “no common ancestor” as long as we copy or mimic the current species, cells, code machinery or even metabolism. (Of course, I’m no biologist.)

      To be certain, you would probably want to start with a more or less completely new “bottom up” design for that one.

  10. @9 Tulse
    I was thinking of lightning and high voltage discharges.
    @8 Matt
    Sheesh!!!I had a Nasal coffee aneurysm !!!

  11. As an engineer I’m always excited by scientific advances and cautious of possible applications. I think this is great!

  12. The biggest obstacle in understanding how life evolved is that DNA needs proteins in order to build a cell and to replicate itself, but those proteins can’t be made without DNA in the first place. It’s a chicken-and-egg problem.

    Okaaaaaaaaaaay then – there’s still a gap! We can still haz God!!!!

  13. I was under the distinct impression that this was playing human.
    Finding stuff out – looking under the rock, picking apart the bug, tasting it to see if it’s delicious, making fire for warmth, tasting the meat that fell into the fire, figuring out how to make a spear and an atom bomb and the internet and now a cell.
    It’s the quintessence of being human.

  14. Which god is it that they are playing?
    If I wield a trident and stand in the ocean, I might be playing Poseidon. I have never heard of a god that makes synthetic cells in a lab.

  15. Of course scientists play god. We all do. Planting a guarden, mowing a lawn, building a road or a house or a skyscraper, writing a book, blogging on the internet: it’s all playing god.

    What are people thinking when they ask a question like this? Just asking questions is playing god! That’s why the whole idea of god or gods is so ridiculous. Every day human beings do things more wonderful than any god. We create things, we experiment, we think of new ideas, we investigate. What does god do? No one knows! If there were a god, surely someone could point to something that they could demonstrate to be something done by the god. But they can’t.

    So, yes, we play god. There’s no one else to! The really offensive part comes when someone says, ‘Oh dear, you can’t do that. That would be playing god!’ What on earth could they possibly mean?

  16. Did Venter’s team create life?

    Whenever I hear people talk about ‘life’ now, I am reminded of a good talk I heard a few years ago by a philosopher from CU Boulder named Carol Cleland. Her thoughts were that when we try to define life now we are in the same position people were in when they tried to define water before we had atomic theory.

    Then, people talked about water’s properties (a fluid at temps. X – Y, a solvent for A, B, C, etc.), but now we define water as H2O. Without the underlying atomic theory it was much harder to define one substance as opposed to others.

    Without a more fundamental understanding we are limited to definitions that look like laundry lists. We say what life does, but not what it is. Maybe this is appropriate. Clearly life is a state of being, not a substance, so talking about what life is only in terms of what it is made of misses an important point.

    Maybe we need a better understanding of ontology before we can provide a decent definition of life. Then we can talk about whether we can create it in the lab.

    1. Clearly life is a state of being,

      That isn’t clear to me at all.

      First, it looks to me like a very anthropocentric thinking, to define a characteristic around “me”. Considering how often that particular thinking have failed and its lack of any success, it should be immediately suspect.

      Second, it isn’t a natural definition. For a natural definition we have to look at how stuff work out in nature. A living system is naturally an entity that participates in the process of evolution, analogous to how that a mass is an entity that participates in the process of gravitation.

      That entity can only be a biological population. For example, our LUCA was alive, but it wasn’t just a single cell. To isolate an individual and call it “alive” is pointless in for example sexual populations, for it can’t reproduce meaningfully. Yes, it metabolizes, but it isn’t fully functional and fit from a biological viewpoint. It is a dead end.

      I just don’t see how we can claim not to understand what life is hundreds of years after we figured out the basic biological process and the entities that obeys it. This is exactly the same thing that your atomic theory analogy portrays.

      [Also, as a general rule, we can always observe processes but they don’t have to have specific states. Therefore it is always better to discuss in terms of process. I would say that it is an ontological understanding, if not philosophy was so abhorrent to understanding of just about anything. :-D]

      1. By a state of being I just meant that the same entity can be alive now and dead later. Not sure how me-centric that is…

  17. I don’t get what all the fuss is about.

    Whether artificial or not and aside from the possible element of fun, I don’t see a difference in essence between this and plain old sex.

    The properties and the potenbtial for living matter to arise are in the nature of matter itself. We merely monkey around with the building blocks (so to speak).

  18. We can now make genomes to our desire, and put in them any genes we want, and then use them to build organisms.

    Well. Yeah. In the same sense that a person who just downloaded, built, and installed the newest version of the Linux kernel on his already-working otherwise-vanilla Linux box has the potential to one day go on to write his own OS from scratch. Yeah, that person demonstrated proficiency in a foundational skill, as has Craig Venter’s team, but just as the hypothetical Linux geek has a great deal to learn about the structure and programming of operating systems, Venter’s team has a lot to learn about the structure and workings of genomes before they can design a working organism from scratch.

  19. I read somewhere that it’s got the code for a website in its genome. I don’t know which one, but that is absolutely awesome.

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