Synthetic cell research criticised as 'scientific folly'


IRISH SCIENTISTS have given a cold response to research released by geneticist Craig Venter, describing it as anything from a minor advance to a complete scientific folly.

Dr Venter announced on Thursday he had created a “synthetic cell” after manufacturing a copy of a bacterium’s genetic blueprint and inserting it into another bacterium. The constructed cell then began to function, growing and dividing as normal, Dr Venter and colleagues wrote in the online journal Science Express.

Dr Venter said the technology could be used to modify organisms to make them produce useful medicines or provide a source of energy. He said his research group was already working on ways to speed up vaccine production, and his method could make new chemicals or food ingredients.

However, Trinity College Dublin professor of genetics Prof David McConnell was completely dismissive of this claim.

The potential to modify organisms was already available through conventional genetic engineering, he said yesterday. “I think it is of very minor significance. It is a scientific folly,” he said. “There are no new ethical issues.”

Dr Venter’s methods were extremely complex, but of low interest. “In scientific terms we have learned nothing new.”

It was of technological significance because of its complexity and the size of the genome copied by Dr Venter and his team, but it was not clear why someone would go to the trouble of using the technique.

Genetic engineering could already do what Dr Venter was proposing. “Genetic engineering has revolutionised medicine, revolutionised the pharmaceutical industry, revolutionised agriculture and revolutionised forensic science. It is based on extraordinarily good science,” Prof McConnell said.

His greatest concern regarding Dr Venter’s work was its possible impact on research. “Yes it is important because it threatens the reputation of science,” Prof McConnell said.

His Trinity colleague, Prof Ken Wolfe, was also dismissive. “I think it has been exaggerated. He has a reputation for showmanship,” Prof Wolfe, professor of genome evolution, said yesterday.

“He hasn’t created life, he has mimicked life. It is a technical achievement to synthesise a piece of DNA that size,” he added. “It was an achievement of scale.”

Prof Wolfe likened it to replacing the operating system on a computer. He suggested that Dr Venter was stoking up the controversy surrounding the research. “He is very good at lining up ethicists and moralists to comment on what he has done.”

Prof Frank Barry, scientific director of NUI Galway’s Regenerative Medicine Institute who is deeply involved in genetic engineering in a medical context, said: “It was a small step not a big step.”

The most significant aspect of the research was the size of the genome constructed by Dr Venter, he said. “This is probably the biggest genome yet assembled. That is not the same as creating artificial life.” The ability to alter the genetic blueprint of organisms is already available, he said. “The insertion or deletion of genes already exists and is very efficient, even with human cells.” The research was “interesting but not profound”, he added.

“In some ways it does open up the door to new organisms,” he added but Dr Venter’s technique would most likely only be applied to very simple organisms. This was because of difficulties surrounding building of the synthetic genome.