Was life really created in a test tube? And does it disprove biblical creation?
Published: 25 May 2010 (GMT+10)
Headlines are buzzing with the news of Dr Craig Venter’s sensational “creation of a synthetic life form”. Naturally, one atheopathic invader of CMI’s Facebook fan page gloated:
“You can now make life from no life in your own lab, no need for a God just a Man. So I guess you will suddenly change from saying ‘can’t be done’ to worrying about morals. There are deep philosophical ideas that this brings up. I doubt many Young Earth Creationalists [sic] will grasp the significance of this for quite some time.”
So what was actually achieved, and what does it mean?
In 2002, I wrote about Dr Venter’s plans to make new life, in Will scientists create new life forms—and what would it prove?, covering not only the above point but others about “playing God”, biohazards, and information. Readers might wish to study this article before proceeding further. My colleague Dr Carl Wieland also wrote an article for Creation magazine 26(3):16–17 in 2004, Creating life in a test-tube? which is also worth studying for overlapping as well as different points.
What was actually achieved?
The leftist UK newspaper, The Guardian, had a headline Craig Venter creates synthetic life form. But the subheading read: “Craig Venter and his team have built the genome of a bacterium from scratch and incorporated it into a cell to make what they call the world’s first synthetic life form.” This was the culmination of 15 years of research.
Existing cell machinery needed
Note very carefully what this said: the DNA was built from scratch, then placed into an already existing cell before it could work. This shows that it’s not enough just to make DNA; it needs the machinery of a cell before it works. This has long been a “vicious circle” for chemical evolution (or “abiogenesis”), or the origin of life from non-living life: DNA is no use without machinery to translate it, but this machinery is itself encoded in the DNA—see Self-replicating enzymes? A critique of some current evolutionary origin-of-life models.
DNA sequence is software
In an online video, Dr Venter explains his work:
“It’s pretty stunning when you just replace the DNA software in the cell, and the cell instantly starts reading that new software, starts making a whole different set of proteins, and within a short while, all the characteristics of the first species disappear, and a new species emerges from this software that controls that cell going forward. …
“Life is basically the result of an information process, a software process. Our genetic code is our software, and our cells are dynamically, constantly reading our genetic code, making new proteins, and the proteins make the other cellular components. …
“This is now the first time where we’ve started with information in the computer, built that software molecule, now over a million letters of genetic code, put that into a recipient cell, and have this process start where that information converted that cell into a new species.”
This lines up with what evolutionist Paul Davies says. He is anti-creationist and even anti-Christian, but he argues that the living cell is like an incredibly powerful supercomputer. That’s because the secret of life lies not with the chemical ingredients of DNA, but with their organizational arrangement. They code for proteins, via the decoding machinery mentioned above.1 Davies calls the living cell “an information processing and replicating system of astonishing complexity.”2 Davies continued:
“DNA is not a special life-giving molecule, but a genetic databank that transmits its information using a mathematical code. Most of the workings of the cell are best described, not in terms of material stuff—hardware—but as information, or software. Trying to make life by mixing chemicals in a test tube is like soldering switches and wires in an attempt to produce Windows 98. It won’t work because it addresses the problem at the wrong conceptual level.”
But this leaves Davies with a problem in explaining how life could have arisen from non-living chemicals:
“How did nature fabricate the world’s first digital information processor—the original living cell—from the blind chaos of blundering molecules? How did molecular hardware get to write its own software?”
Indeed, the chemical interactions between the DNA letters cannot explain their order. In fact, the letters are not even chemically combined with each other; rather, they form rungs of a ladder comprising deoxyribose and phosphate. Michael Polanyi (1891–1976), former chairman of physical chemistry at the University of Manchester (UK) who turned to philosophy, affirmed this decades ago:
“As the arrangement of a printed page is extraneous to the chemistry of the printed page, so is the base sequence in a DNA molecule extraneous to the chemical forces at work in the DNA molecule. It is this physical indeterminacy of the sequence that produces the improbability of any particular sequence and thereby enables it to have a meaning—a meaning that has a mathematically determinate information content.”3
Furthermore, Venter modeled his software on the known arrangements of the simplest known self-replicating organism, a Mycoplasma. In the abstract of his paper Creation of a bacterial cell controlled by a chemically synthesized genome published in the journal Science, he and his co-workers state:
“We report the design, synthesis, and assembly of the 1.08-Mbp Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0 genome starting from digitized genome sequence information and its transplantation into a Mycoplasma capricolum recipient cell to create new Mycoplasma mycoides cells that are controlled only by the synthetic chromosome. The only DNA in the cells is the designed synthetic DNA sequence, including ‘watermark’ sequences and other designed gene deletions and polymorphisms, and mutations acquired during the building process. The new cells have expected phenotypic properties and are capable of continuous self-replication.”
That is, he decoded the sequence of one organism, then used this information to synthesize DNA in that sequence. He made some modifications: adding four “watermarks” and extra coding for a substance that would turn blue in the presence of certain drugs. Then it was implanted it into a bacterium of the same genus.
DNA is chemically difficult to make
Even aside from the informational content, which is the order of the chemicals, and the need for decoding machinery, there is a huge problem in ordinary chemistry in getting any large DNA molecule. Venter explained that ordinary chemical synthesizers make DNA only 50–80 letters long, so it was quite a jump to making something exceeding a million letters. Furthermore, these synthesizers use very complicated starting materials, deoxyribonucleotides, which are a long way from being produced in a primordial soup (see some of the tremendous difficulties involved in making ribonucleotides, required for the fashionable RNA World ideas, and Origin of life: instability of building blocks). Furthermore, they are chemically activated, so they have the energy to link up into the large molecules (see Origin of life: the polymerization problem), and all “right handed” as required, whereas a primordial soup would produce a 50/50 mixture of “left-handed” and “right-handed” molecules (see Origin of life: the chirality problem).
Actually, Venter used proteins found in yeast to join large lengths of DNA.
DNA is certainly the most compact information storage and retrieval system known to date (see DNA: marvellous messages or mostly mess?), but it is chemically unstable, and even physically unwieldy. Viruses are now known to have a special powerful mini-motor to wind up this extremely long and thin molecular thread.
Venter’s work was an amazing scientific achievement, the result of years of research and much ingenuity. There were at least three problems he had to solve to make his synthetic life; these are listed here, alongside his solutions:
- Operating machinery: using an already existing cell
- Software: obtaining the information of an already existing cell, modifying it, and synthesizing DNA with this information.
- Joining up this molecule despite the chemical and physical difficulties. Venter used proteins from yeast to help.
Did Venter really make new life?
Small wonder that the claims of “synthetic life” have critics. The Science News report Genome from a bottle cited a couple:
To some, though, this man-made genome is not technically artificial. “It’s a great feat, but I wouldn’t call it an artificial organism,” Collins says [bioengineer James Collins, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at Boston University who was not involved in the study]. Synthetic, he contends, implies designed from scratch, not plagiarized from a natural genome. What’s more, the experiment required a recipient cell to provide the cytoplasm to hold the transplanted genome. “It’s small, but it’s an important quibble,” he says.
To claim the creation of synthetic life, asserts Glenn McGee of the Center for Practical Bioethics in Kansas City, Mo., the entire organism must be successfully produced from raw materials.
“The landmark achievement has yet to occur,” McGee says. “What they’ve done is they’ve successfully transplanted DNA from one thing to another without noticeably harming the operation of the old DNA, as best they understand it, from their definition of its function. When I put it that way, it’s a hell of a lot less significant.”
Jones is sceptical about the hyperbole of breathless headlines. “The idea that this is “playing God” is just daft. What he has done in genetic terms would be analogous to taking an Apple Mac programme and making it work on a PC — and then saying you have created a computer. It’s not trivial, but it is utterly absurd the claims that are being made about it.”
In the 2002 article cited above, we wrote about Venter’s proposal as follows:
Almost as soon as the news broke, we received a gloating email basically saying that we should be so frightened that we may as well disband CMI, saying:“New life forms can now be produced in a dish. So much for saying man can’t create life. Keep defending your deep seated belief though, people depend on you.”
… CMI has never actually claimed that man can’t create life. Rather, we claim that intelligence is required to generate life, and specifically the literally encyclopedic quantities of information on which life depends. So, as illustrated by the cartoon on the right, if Venter and Smith succeed, it would actually reinforce our claim! They rely on meticulous planning, not just throwing a few ‘building blocks’ into something resembling the hypothetical primordial soup.
Indeed, far from showing that chemical evolution is plausible, Venter’s achievement shows many reasons why it is not. The DNA software sequence was planned after analyzing an already existing microbe, the components joined with intricate chemistry largely based on proteins from living organisms, and the product was read with already-existing cell machinery. So the critics above have a good point: this wasn’t really a synthetic life form.
But what if they had not only manufactured the DNA from its components, but also made proteins from their components to function like the yeast ones, and managed to make the decoding machines and cytoplasm as well? Venter says that such a feat is years away. Then there might be a real claim that they had made synthetic life. Would this then be proof against the need for a Designer of life? Not at all. Our 2004 article cited above pointed out:
[I]f it were to happen, then in one sense, Christians should be getting excited, using it as evidence for creation. … if someone were to claim that synthesizing life in a test-tube wipes out the idea of creation, they would in effect be saying, ‘Synthesizing life in a test-tube proves that it evolved.’ Now substitute the italicized words in that phrase with others of identical meaning, and the absurdity of it becomes clear: ‘Using intelligence to make life in a test-tube proves that it made itself and did not arise through intelligence.’ …
say someone, washed ashore on a remote island, sees a portable battery-operated television set. Never having seen a TV set before, they eventually happen to switch it on and watch it in amazement. Puzzling about how this device came to be, its discoverer decides to take it apart. Years are spent studying it and learning all about how it works. Using thousands of hours of mind-power and effort, the person learns how to make an exact copy of each part,4 and how to put the parts together in exactly the same way as the original. Finally, the moment has arrived—the switch is thrown—voilà, it works. Now if such an amazingly brilliant achievement had taken place, it would obviously be the height of foolishness for such a person to say, excitedly, ‘Wow, now I know for certain that the device I found made itself!’
So, as we said years ago, such news is far from a threat to biblical creation, but a strong vindication.
- In eukaryotic organisms, i.e. with cells containing nuclei, there are additional codes upon codes: these control the DNA windings on the histone proteins, deactivation via methylation—an epigenetic code that controls gene activation (see The Genetic Puppeteer). And just this month, another code within a code was discovered, the splicing code, which controls the way certain pieces of RNA transcripts of the DNA code are spliced out. This enables a single gene to encode multiple proteins, and explains why humans have only about 20,000 genes yet make over 100,000 proteins, which surprised those who decoded the human genome (including Venter himself, The sequence of the human genome, Science 291(5507):1304–1351, 2001). But thanks to the information decoded by the splicing code, “three neurexin genes can generate over 3,000 genetic messages that help control the wiring of the brain,” according to co-discoverer Brendan Frey. Return to text.
- Davies, P., How we could create life—The key to existence will be found not in primordial sludge, but in the nanotechnology of the living cell, The Guardian, 11 December 2002, www.guardian.co.uk/education/2002/dec/11/highereducation.uk. Return to text.
- Polanyi, M., Life’s irreducible structure, Science 160:1308, 1968. Return to text.
- To make the analogy tighter, this could include even the discovery of the processes of mining and extracting copper, moulding plastic, making transistors, etc. Return to text.