Artificial life will be created within four months, a controversial scientist has predicted. Craig Venter, who led a private project to sequence the human genome, told The Times that his team had cleared a critical hurdle to creating man-made organisms in a laboratory.
“Assuming we don’t make any errors, I think it should work and we should have the first synthetic species by the end of the year,” he said.
Venter's team is trying to take the next step, which is to create life from a completely synthetic genome (as opposed to using an existing genome from a bacterial cell). They've published an update on their progress in Science.
However, be careful when you read the news reports, which can be misleading: if Venter is successful, this will be the first working synthetic genome, but it's not one that has been designed from scratch. What Venter's team is doing is synthetically reproducing a genome that already exists in nature, one that we already know works coherently. It's a copy and paste operation in essence, although the technological feat, when Venter is successful, will be a major milestone.
The more challenging feat is to design a genome from scratch. I want to see someone start out at the whiteboard, make a list of all of the genes they would like their genome to have, and then go out and make a functioning genome. To do this, we need computer-aided design capabilities for biology, something like what Boeing put together for the 777. Synthesizing an existing genome is an amazing feat, but designing one from scratch is in another league altogether.