US geneticist Craig Venter has an uncanny ability to generate publicity. The billionaire scientist whose private efforts to decode the human genome pushed the public project to complete its work early this decade has done it again.
His team of researchers announced last week they have synthesised the entire genome of a bacterium from scratch and made another bug follow the new DNA instructions. As if on cue, newspaper headlines started screaming about 'playing God' and 'creating new life forms'. Venter and his team have achieved nothing of the sort. What they have done is undeniably a major technical advance, but not a conceptual breakthrough. We are still a long way from creating made-to-order organisms for, say, industry, medicine or bio-terror.
Scientists have previously assembled a whole genome, but the genetic sequences were much shorter than the 1.1 million base pairs of the four-letter genetic alphabet that the US team has produced as a copy of the bacterium Mycoplasma mycoides. There is also nothing new about transferring the genome of one organism into another emptied of its own DNA. That, too, has been done before.
However, Venter's team has managed to achieve both tasks together, improving techniques at almost every step. The end result is a foreign organism which has adopted the synthetic M. mycoides genome and starts to function and reproduce like one.
Undoubtedly, we are at the threshold of tinkering or even creating entire genomes, as opposed to the more traditional genetic engineering, which manipulates single genes or sets of genes. But we are far from achieving that goal, with all its potential for good and evil, and the scary idea of creating new life forms. Venter has only proved he can synthetically and accurately create a copy of a natural genome and make it work in another organism.
As is often the case, Venter's ambitions seem to exceed his achievements, but they mark signposts of where we are going as a scientific civilisation. That's why he is such an important figure.