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“Artificial Life” Or Intelligently Designed Plagiarism?

As Jonathan Wells recently observed, it’s being widely reported on internet news sites that biotech guru Craig Venter and his team have created “artificial life.” BBC News has a good description of what was really done:

How a Synthetic Cell Was Created:

1. The scientists “decoded” the chromosome of an existing bacterial cell – using a computer to read each of the letters of genetic code.

2. They copied this code and chemically constructed a new synthetic chromosome, piecing together blocks of DNA.

3. The team inserted this chromosome into a bacterial cell which replicated itself. Synthetic bacteria might be used to make new fuels and drugs.

(See “‘Artificial life’ breakthrough announced by scientists,” BBC News, May 20, 2010.)

To be sure, this work is a technical accomplishment — with the potential to lead to applications in medical, pharmaceutical, and biological research. But did they really create “artificial life”?

The operative phrase above is, “They copied this code.” Venter and his team showed they can successfully identify the code necessary for a living bacterial cell. They sequenced the code, imported the code into a computer, and then outputted it.

But we still don’t even understand how all the parts of a bacterial cell work. As biochemist Russell Doolittle wrote in a Nature paper titled “Microbial genomes multiply“:

in each of the completely sequenced genomes so far there are vast numbers of putative genes for proteins of unknown function. It is precisely this point — the large number of putative genes with no known function — that has been the biggest surprise in genome sequencing…In every genome examined so far, at least a quarter of the genes remain ‘hypothetical,’ in that no function can be ascribed. After such a long history of biochemical and genetic examination, how could there be so much in the way of unknown equipment?

Learning how to import the right code from a bacterial chromosome into a new bacterial chromosome doesn’t mean we fully understand all aspects of the code or the proteins and structures it encodes.

And note also that they had to import the code into a pre-existing bacterial cell. That means that any epigenetic information that exists outside of the DNA was borrowed from the bacterial cell that they inserted the chromosome into — not created from scratch. As Elizabeth Pennisi’s newspiece in Science on the research observed:

“That’s a pretty amazing accomplishment,” says Anthony Forster, a molecular biologist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Still, he and others emphasize that this work didn’t create a truly synthetic life form, because the genome was put into an existing cell.

Even Craig Venter (to his credit) acknowledges, “We didn’t create life from scratch.” That’s an understatement.

The Science newspiece also observed, “So that the assembled genome would be recognizable as synthetic, four of the ordered DNA sequences contained strings of bases that, in code, spell out an e-mail address, the names of many of the people involved in the project, and a few famous quotations.” If these bugs are let loose and then rediscovered in 1000 years, will researchers be unjustified in inferring intelligent design when they find e-mail addresses, names, and famous quotes encoded into the genome of this bacteria?

Venter’s technical paper in Science said:

The properties of the cells controlled by the assembled genome are expected to be the same as if the whole cell had been produced synthetically (the DNA software builds its own hardware).

And in this case, they didn’t create the software from scratch. They copied the necessary genetic information from a pre-existing bacteria.

So now that intelligent agents have synthesized the DNA-based “software” necessary for life, another question arises: What, in our experience is the sole known cause of this software? William Dembski and Jonathan Witt think they have the answer in Intelligent Design Uncensored: “[T]here remains one and only one type of cause that has shown itself able to create functional information like we find in cells, books and software programs–intelligent design.” (p. 90)

It seems to me that rather than creating “artificial life,” what they did was figure out how to plagiarize the intelligent designer’s programming.


Casey Luskin

Associate Director and Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



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