The news that researchers at the J Craig Venter Institute have created the first synthetic bacterial cell has sparked heated debate among the scientific community and the world’s press at large.

Research has been published in Science Express, carried out by a team co-led by controversial US biologist Craig Venter, who synthesised the 1.08 million base pair chromosome of a modified Mycoplasma mycoides genome. The converted cell goes by the snappy name Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0 and the researchers say it is “the proof of principle that genomes can be designed in the computer, chemically made in the laboratory and transplanted into a recipient cell to produce a new self-replicating cell controlled only by the synthetic genome”.

For nearly 15 years, Dr Venter said, “we have been consumed by this research, but we have also been equally focused on addressing the societal implications of what we believe will be one of the most powerful technologies and industrial drivers for societal good”. He added that “we look forward to continued review and dialogue about the important applications of this work to ensure that it is used for the benefit of all.”

One of the lead researchers, Clyde Hutchison, said that “to me, the most remarkable thing about our synthetic cell is that its genome was designed in the computer and brought to life through chemical synthesis, without using any pieces of natural DNA”. His colleague, Hamilton Smith, added that “with this first synthetic bacterial cell and the new tools and technologies we developed to successfully complete this project, we now have the means to dissect the genetic instruction set of a bacterial cell to see and understand how it really works”.

The JCVI scientists said that the knowledge gained by constructing this first self-replicating synthetic cell, “coupled with decreasing costs for DNA synthesis, will give rise to wider use of this powerful technology”. They went on to say “this will undoubtedly lead to the development of many important applications and products including biofuels, vaccines, pharmaceuticals, clean water and food products”.

The response in the media has prompted certain headlines containing one or all of ‘Frankenstein’, ‘artificial life’ and ‘man playing God”. Others have claimed that while the JCVI’s efforts are hugely impressive on a technical level, the cell is a really semi-synthetic one and that life is not being created but copied. Any practical use in terms of medicine is also many years away.

Writing in the journal Nature, Jim Collins, professor of biomedical engineering at Boston University, says “relax - media reports hyping this as a significant, alarming step forward in the creation of artificial forms of life can be discounted”. He adds that “the work reported by Venter and his colleagues is an important advance in our ability to re-engineer organisms; it does not represent the making of new life from scratch".

Prof Collins adds that “frankly, scientists do not know enough about biology to create life. Although the Human Genome Project has expanded the parts list for cells, there is no instruction manual for putting
them together to produce a living cell”. He concludes by saying “it is like trying to assemble an operational jumbo jet from its parts list — impossible”.