Synthetic life breakthrough met with awe and alarm

News that synthetic life has been produced in a US laboratory has been received with awe and alarm from media, bloggers and the general public.

A research team led by Craig Venter said overnight that they had created a new species of bacteria operating entirely under the control of a man-made set of genetic instructions, originally stored on a computer.

Dr Venter used computer paradigms to explain his research, saying the cell's "parent is a computer", and that the cell "booted up" with its man-made programming.

"With Venter's breakthrough it's now possible to splice and snap together genetic material to create a Legoland's worth of new genetic combinations," writes Time's Alice Park.

In New Zealand, University of Otago microbiologist Clive Ronson said the research opened up the possibility of designing organisms from scratch.

"Personally I think it's very exciting indeed ... The potential it opens up is really quite tremendous," Dr Ronson said.

Genetic sequencing in recent years had produced a huge store of traits and mechanisms that could be drawn on to programme a new organism.

Applications included farming cells whose metabolisms produce biofuels or clean up toxic waste in efficient, unprecedented ways, Dr Ronson said.

The BBC also attempts to answer the big question on its Q&A: "The meaning of synthetic life".

But some are playing up the alarm of "creating artificial life". Britain's Daily Mail breaks up its report with a picture of Will Smith and says: "There are fears the research could be abused and lead to millions being wiped out by a plague like in the Will Smith film I Am Legend."

The newspaper quotes "technology watchdogs" who say it is a "Pandora's box moment" and researchers are "playing God".

The Huffington Post has the headline: "Scientists Bring Back Artificial Life - and Our Fear of Frankenstein".

Technology website Dvice says Dr Venter has "briefed the White House - just like in a science fiction movie".

A bioethics blogger, Dr Art Caplan, asks the question: "What does it mean to be alive?", saying oversight of such this sort of research is "vital".

The research paper itself is available online from the journal Science. It is heavy on jargon, but details how researchers chemically synthesised building block molecules, assembled them into 1000-long "cassettes", then stitched those together in yeast cells until they become the full 1.08 million-length DNA.

The New York Times took a more conservative view on the developments, quoting a Caltech researcher that similar research had already been done and that Dr Venter's was only larger in scale.

"To my mind Craig has somewhat overplayed the importance of this," said David Baltimore, a leading geneticist at Caltech.

"He has not created life, only mimicked it."

Twitter users reacted to the news with awe and alarm.

"'This is beyond terrifying. Craig Venter creates synthetic life form," said AmandaAsh

"Synthetic Life ... all at once - stunning, inspiring, chilling..." said MacSeeker.

"Witness history!!" said cairotango.

"I, for one, welcome our new synthetic digital life overlords," said mezzoblue.

Meanwhile, on Facebook, Brain Candy merely responded: "Whoa".

- NZHERALD STAFF

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