JCVI5

Scientist and biotech entrepreneur William Haseltine challenges the importance of the synthetic cell story. While agreeing the research is significant, he argues that the breakthrough has been blown out of proportion:

Has man indeed made life? I think not. The replica is indistinguishable in form and function from the original. Were it not for marker tags introduced into the replica DNA, there would be no difference at all. It is as if one were to create a copy of Michelangelo's David, accurate down to the last crack and imperfection except for the signature, and call it new. Is the organism so created useful? No more so than the original, most famous for being small, with no known use outside the laboratory.

Will this work open a new era of modern biology? Again unlikely. That door was opened some time ago with the advent of genetic engineering that allows functioning genes of one organism to be inserted into another (think of the human gene for insulin inserted in bacterium to produce the replacement hormone for diabetics), and more recently by mixing and matching the genes from many different species to create new useful biochemical pathways. For example, nine different genes, some from bacteria and some from plants, were spliced into yeast DNA to direct the production of an anti-malarial drug previously only obtainable from a tropical plant. Similar methods have already been used to ferment diesel and jet fuel. These techniques are part of a rapidly growing field I call "constructive biology," but now goes by the unfortunate name "synthetic biology."

(Image: Electron micrographs by Tom Deerinck and Mark Ellisman of the NCMIR at UCSD)

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.