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June 1, 2010 Newsletter

Newsletter on Artificial Life

Some very exciting advances in synthetic biology were recently announced. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, some news media over-hyped these events as being the "Creation of Life by God 2.0." What really happened, and what does it mean?

This research is led by American biologist Dr. J. Craig Venter, the first to sequence the human genome and generally considered the world’s leading expert in decoding and synthesizing DNA. Scientists at JCVI (the J. Craig Venter Institute) removed the DNA from a normal bacterium and replaced it with man-made DNA that contained one million nucleotide base pairs.


Each base pair corresponds to one of the four “letters” in the universal genetic code of all known life: A, C, G, or T. For the first time, an organism with artificial DNA survived and reproduced, which most agree qualifies it to be called “alive.”

While the DNA base pairs were assembled in a lab, the coding was copied from existing natural bacteria, with the addition of a “watermark” that identified it as man-made. This is in effect cloning with benefits. While a major scientific advance, this is not the creation of entirely new life from scratch.

The new results emphasize the immense complexity of even the simplest life and how extraordinarily unlikely it is that life could have arisen by random chance through any known physical or chemical process. As Venter said: “The DNA really has to be accurate so we have some pieces where even one letter changing out of a million is enough to have it not work, so it’s like our computer software if there’s a glitch in the software the program crashes.” Venter’s team didn’t create life by shaking a test tube full of chemicals; they methodically assembled one million base pairs in exactly the right sequence. As he said, if they made one mistake out of a million the result would not be life.

In the language of my book Can Life Be Merely An Accident?, accidentally matching one million base pairs is less likely than drawing the ace of spades 256,840 times in a row—fabulously beyond any reasonable definition of “possible.”

As Venter’s statements and his research confirm, the great mystery of the origin of life is how an immense* number of base pairs could be assembled in the right sequence.

Venter has great plans that would be immensely beneficial to all of us. By mixing and matching genes from existing organisms, and perhaps designing some novel genes, he envisions creating bacteria that eat oil spills, convert coal into natural gas, remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, produce vital medicines, and make food more efficiently. The machines of our future may be synthetic bacteria.

(*) Note: As stated in my book, Venter’s Minimal Genome Project estimates that the smallest number of base pairs required for the simplest organism is about 460,000, although their most successful results so far is with 1.08 million base pairs. To compute the highest possible odds of life arising accidentally, I used Venter’s lower figure, making accidental life less likely than drawing the ace of spades 119,000 times in a row. The numbers are different, but either way the conclusion remains the same. As scientists would say, the analysis is extremely “robust.”

Best Regards,
Author of "Everyone's Guide to Atoms, Einstein, and the Universe"
and "Can Life Be Merely An Accident?"

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