It was fairly predictable that last Saturday’s headline in the Guardian about Craig Venter’s latest synthetic biology activities – I am creating artificial life, declares US gene pioneer – would generate some reaction from that paper’s readers. The form of that reaction, though, wasn’t, as one might have expected, outrage about scientists “playing God”, or worries about the potential dangers of a supercharged version of genetic modification. Instead, the paper printed yesterday an extended response from Nick Gay, a biochemist at the University of Cambridge.
This makes the (to me, entirely reasonable) point that you can’t really describe this as creating life from scratch; it’s “as if he had selected a set of car parts, assembled them into a car and then claimed to have invented the car”. Gay’s own research is into the intricacies and complexities of cellular signalling, so perhaps it is not surprising that he thinks that the thinking underlying Venter’s approach is “the crudest and most facile kind of reductionism”. It would be interesting to know how widely his point of view is shared by other biochemists and molecular biologists.