Last month the news media heralded the creation in the lab of the first artificial cell. This work was a great achievement, but it wasn’t the creation of an artificial cell. What was done at the J Craig Venter Institute was the creation of an artificial bacterial chromosome that was successfully transferred into a bacterium where it replaced the cell’s native DNA. The cell then began replicating itself making a new set of protein driven by the artificial DNA. Read a summary of this work here and the whole paper here.
This work is a great scientific advance, but it’s far from the creation of an artificial cell. The authors of this work, in fact, never claimed they had created an artificial cell. It was the press that made this leap. A synthetic genome was manufactured. And this bacterial genome was not made from scratch as the synthetic genome inserted was almost identical to that of a natural bacterium. The creation of a whole cell using only inert materials is likely a long way off. In other words, artificial life has yet to be created. Will it happen? Probably. If and when it does the achievement will be stupendous. Going to multi-cell organisms is an even more daunting challenge. But even if this is met the three basic questions facing science and indeed all human inquiry will remain:
1. How did the universe arise?
2. How did life start?
3. How did human consciousness begin?
My guess is that the answers to these three questions will remain elusive or even unattainable. But human ingenuity is as boundless as human mischief.