The creation of the world’s first self-replicating synthetic bacterial cell has been greeted with optimism and controversy. Scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute, a genome research organization, announced their accomplishment on May 20. The team was able to construct the 1.08 million base pair chromosome of a modified Mycoplasma mycoides cell using the digitized genome of M. mycoides and chemically synthesizing cassettes of DNA that were assembled and grown in yeast cells. The genome was then transplanted into Mycoplasma capricolum cells. This reprogrammed the cells to produce new M. mycoides cells.

Craig Venter, president of the institute, and Daniel Gibson, an associate professor at the institute, see this discovery as a solution in dealing with the challenges of a growing population. “There are approximately 6.8 billion people on our planet, soon to be more than nine billion. We clearly have difficulty providing sufficient food, clean water, health care, and power to our existing residents without degrading the environment. How will it be possible to provide for more than 9 billion people without some substantial scientific advances? We believe that synthetic genomics can provide one solution,” they wrote in an article in the Wall Street Journal. Venter is planning to develop a single-celled alga to assist in the production of biofuels. The discovery could furthermore allow for the quicker development of vaccines and more effective antibiotics, as well as the production of food oils, and components of plastic and chemicals.

Venter’s discovery and research could also correspond with the aspirations of other scientists. Drew Endy, a researcher from Stanford University, is currently trying to make a catalogue of DNA components that could be ordered by biologists to link together to form the desired genome of a cell. This would allow scientists to order parts that could be used to give an organism its desired functions.

There is, however, controversy about the significance of the synthetic cell. “To my mind Craig has somewhat overplayed the importance of this … He has not created life, only mimicked it,” said David Baltimore, a geneticist at Caltech University, told the New York Times. Indeed, it is easy to exaggerate what Venter and his team actually did. They modified or replaced only 12 genes of the entire genome and used pre-existing (organic) cells. Synthetic DNA has already been inserted into living cells many times before, albeit on a smaller scale.

The Vatican, warning scientists that only God can create life, gave a cautious approval to Venter’s cell. “It’s a great scientific discovery. Now we have to understand how it will be implemented in the future,” said Monsignor Rino Fisichello, the Vatican’s top bioethics official, to Associated Press. “If we ascertain that it is for the good of all, of the environment and man in it, we’ll keep the same judgment.” He added, however, “If, on the other hand, the use of this discovery should turn against the dignity of and respect for human life, then our judgment would change.”

Others were more concerned. The Action Group on Erosion, Technology, and Concentration, a civil society organization, has called for a global moratorium on synthetic biology. “This is the quintessential Pandora’s box moment — like the splitting of the atom or the cloning of Dolly the sheep. We will all have to deal with the fall-out from this alarming experiment,” said Jim Thomas in a news release from the ETC Group.

Practical concerns about synthetic life forms include the accidental release of new organisms into the environment and bioterrorism, as is the creation of dangerous new pathogens. Scientists have already been able to recreate the polio and flu viruses from the past. In 2001, they modified a mouse pox strain to be 100 per cent lethal.

According to a May 22 article in The Economist, innovations in synthetic biology present dangers and opportunities, but urged transparency and openness so benefits could be realized while public accessibility not only makes threats possible, but easily countered. The editors write that technological openness is ultimately an effective way to quickly respond to new biological threats with cures.

To Wesley J. Smith, an award-winning author and a senior fellow in Human Rights and Bioethics at the Discovery Institute, the major ethical concern associated with the synthetic cell at the moment is the harm it may cause to humans and the environment if it escapes the lab. “I think we have to question whether because we can do something, that means we should do that thing,” Smith told The Interim. “While I am not usually a believer in the precautionary principle because it could stifle scientific advances and human thriving, in this case I think we should go very slow. I also think that government should be ready to regulate this field and control it so that we don’t end up with a wild, wild West scenario and don’t try to make novel life forms or experiment with changing the human genome through synthetic means.”