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Synthetic cells: the bride of Frankenstein?

Detail from an undated handout image provided by the J. Craig Venter Institute shows negatively stained transmission electron micrographs of aggregated M. mycoides. Scientists announced a bold step Thursday in the enduring quest to create artificial life. They've produced a living cell powered by manmade DNA.

J. Craig Venter Institute/AP Photo

There will still be quite a few years from the announcement on Thursday of the making of an artificial bacterium until the making of the equivalent of Dr. Frankenstein's monster: a synthetic human being.

With suitable modesty, Craig Venter (famous for the human genome unveiled in 2000) and his colleagues made clear that they had not made a cell from "scratch" - which is a cooking, rather than a biological term, meaning "made from basic or rudimentary elements," which adapted to this context could mean from simple chemical compounds or the elements themselves.

Still, these scientists - the lead author of the paper in the journal Science is Daniel Gibson of the J. Craig Venter Institute - have made the equally uncanny statement that this "is the first self-replicating species whose parent is a computer," and what's more, one that has its own website encoded in its genome.

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Mr. Venter emphasized the pure-research aspect of this feat, quoting the American physicist Richard Feynman as having said, "What I cannot build, I cannot understand" - a highly compact summary of modern science.

In a sense, the newly built bacterium is much closer to being made from scratch than the monster in Frankenstein, Mary Godwin Shelley's novel; Dr. Frankenstein drew most of his material from human corpses he had illegally dug up from graveyards. Having neglected to make a female monster, he not only doomed his invention to loveless agony, but also failed to make a self-replicating species.

Though there is of course a well known and fairly reliable way of making new human beings, the logic advanced by Mr. Venter, of learning to build in order to understand, does, after all, argue in favour of making artificial human beings - not merely robots who can do many of things humans do - in order to understand our species.

Mr. Venter and his colleagues said that their new bacterium's genome is vastly smaller than the human genome, and that this technology cannot be applied in human beings, because far too little is known about human biology. But their work may well have brought nearer an eventual sequel to Frankenstein.

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