Leading article: Dr Venter's research has thrilling possibilities

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The Independent Online

It was predictable that the news that scientists have made an artificial living cell would be greeted with jeremiads about Pandora's box, Frankenstein's monster and geneticists playing God.

It also provoked rather a good gag about God no longer being a chap with a long white beard but one with a short white one, in the form of the genome specialist behind the breakthrough, Dr Craig Venter.

What Dr Venter and his team have done is a major technical advance. They have painstakingly taken chemicals, constructed an artificial piece of DNA and inserted it into a living cell to create a new self-replicating entity. It unleashes all kinds of potential developments and could herald the start of an industrial bio-revolution. How real that prospect is has been made clear by the disclosure that the oil company Exxon has $600m invested in Dr Venter's business and BP sits on his board. It could well win Dr Venter the Nobel Prize.

That said, this is not the creation of artificial life. The scientists have used an existing cell as the vehicle for the new genome. And the medium in which they synthesised what they produced was live yeast cells in which they created their new artificial chromosomes to inject into live host bacteria cells. This is a long way from creating life from bottles of inert chemicals. There are a marathon of steps before anyone could address the issues of complexity – even the yeast cells are 10 times more complex than the so-called synthetic cell – let alone the consciousness which is essential to even low forms of animal life.

Of course, in the research which is to come scientists must consider how the spread of this knowledge should be policed. There are highly sensitive areas of bioscience which must not be abused. Care must be taken at each stage to ensure researchers are not about to step into an arena with unknowable consequences. But we are a very long way off any of that, even with the ingenious technical advance Dr Venter and his colleagues have pioneered.