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Venter's "synthetic life" is a different disc in an old player (but it's still music)

Human-genome-sequencing pioneer Craig Venter, PhD, and his group have announced the achievement of a significant milestone: They've reconstructed the known genome of a bacterial organism, Mycoplasma mycoides, from scratch - that is, starting with bottles of each of the four chemical bases from which DNA is polymerized - and then inserted it into the "de-DNA-ified" husk of an existing cell. The resulting genome-enabled cell was self-propagating - it could make copies of itself.

That's quite something, and the news has drawn considerable coverage and high-altitude commentary. But we shouldn't delude ourselves into thinking we're now on the verge of synthesizing original lifeforms in their entirety, or even of the merely analytical feat of deciphering the origin of life.

The complexities of a living cell dwarf those of the long linear stretches of DNA that constitute its genome. Cells contain cytoplasm and, in higher organisms, numerous discrete and amazingly diverse organelles (such as mitochondria, the cells' power packs, which themselves pack their own load of DNA), all packaged inside specialized membranes.

To get these interlocking parts up and running took several billion years the first time around. While we're moving in the direction of reverse-engineering that process, we've still got a ways to go before we reach the stage of recapitulating it, let alone that of downright invention. There's a difference between mastering a difficult concerto and composing it.

That said, if you want to be a composer there's no better way to start than by learning to play an instrument to perfection. And as we've seen before, Venter is one of the virtuosos of our time.

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