Friday, June 29, 2007

Making Life

The claim isn't really true:

Scientists could create the first new form of artificial life within months after a landmark breakthrough in which they turned one bacterium into another.

Craig Venter likened the process to 'changing a Macintosh computer
into a PC by inserting a new piece of software'

In a development that has triggered unease and excitement in equal measure, scientists in the US took the whole genetic makeup - or genome - of a bacterial cell and transplanted it into a closely related species.

This then began to grow and multiply in the lab, turning into the first species in the process.
It's not quibbling to say that no new life was created. What they did was modify existing life. What they didn't do is make life, even bacterial life, where none before existed. This is something I've been waiting to see ever since my 5th grade science teacher told me that life came from a primordial soup of amino acids. (see, there was this soup, and um, probably lightning and heat, and it was all mixed up... and then, when nobody was paying attention, a single cell organism crawled out) From there, the leap to platypuses was inevitable.

Don't get me wrong, I don't have a religious conviction that says there is no evolution. It's just that there has always been something fishy about the primordial soup-um-and-lightning explanation of life's origins. Whenever I've heard it explained, they always gloss over the middle parts and jump to, "and then there was the first single cell organism." OK, that's how it happened? Then do it again. And still, the closest we can get with our big scientific brains is the modification of existing bacteria.

I'm not saying this isn't important science. I will welcome the day when you can go into the doctor's office, complain that you're tired of this drug resistant staph infection, and hear, "OK well how bout we'll change that into something else for you. How do you feel about rheumatic fever?" or, "Look if you don't care for gonorrhea, we can change that to a rash on your neck."