February 26, 2024


 Artificial life is around the corner, says gene pioneer Craig Venter. His project of creating a "minimal bacterial genome" is only weeks or months away from completion. He calls it "one of the bright milestones in history, changing our conceptual view of life".

And he has applied for a patent, as synthetic life could have a huge number of industrial applications. His company, Synthetic Genomics, recently partnered with energy giant BP to make fuels such as ethanol or hydrogen from coal or oil: "potential to provide all the transportation fuel we need in the US," says Venter.

What Venter has done is to take a very simple bacterium with 470 genes, Mycoplasma genitalium, and knock out each of them to find the minimum needed to sustain life. Apparently there are 381 of these. Theoretically a string of DNA with these genes can be synthesised and placed inside a "ghost cell" consisting of a membrane and some cell machinery. Voila! — Synthia, as the bug has been dubbed.

But artificial life sends shivers up and down the spine of some ethicists and scientists. The ETC Group, a Canadian watchdog organisation spotted Venter’s patent application recently and has asked him to withdraw it as contrary to public morality and safety. There are areas where mankind should not meddle, it says. "We don’t own life, life owns us," says , a Canadian bioethicist.

But there are more down to earth reasons, as well. Bioterrorists could create pathogens. Or a patent on a synthetic organism could make Venter’s company the "Microbesoft" of synthetic biology, according to ETC.