I applaud the very intelligent scientists at the Venter Institute on their success in obtaining a synthesized living organism. The media hype, however, has implied that they created life from non-life, which really needs some scrutiny. Some headlines have included: MSNBC: "It's alive! Artificial DNA controls life" UK Sun: "'Frankenstein' doc creates life" BBC: "'Artificial life' breakthrough announced by scientists" Comcast News: "A step to artificial life: Manmade DNA powers cell" Vanity Fair: "Mankind Creates First Synthetic Genome, Officially Replaces God" UK Daily Mail: "Scientist accused of playing God after creating artificial life by making designer microbe from scratch - but could it wipe out humanity?"
Craig Venter artificial genome interview, 52-second exerpt (in case you doubt there is real computer hardware and software in every cell) that includes Venter's statement "It certainly changed my views of definitions of life and how life works... Life is basically the result of an information process, a software process. Our genetic code is our software."
To clarify the facts, "the team put chemically synthesized pieces of the M. mycoides DNA into yeast which assembled the bacteria’s genome. Then, the M. mycoides genome was transplanted into Mycoplasma capricolum and ‘booted up’ to create a new synthetic version of M. mycoides." (from Fact Sheet) For this "proof of principle" instance, they tried to "synthesize" a bacterium as close to the original genome as they could, with the major "new" genetic material being watermark protein messages (e.g. spelling "CRAIGVENTER"). They didn't use the original DNA as a template, but just as a "standard" for comparison. Since this was a test of concept, the goal was to generate something that already exists.
As I've said in my books and presentations, DNA is simply a storage medium that holds the genome, which is the set of application programs for an organism. The digital information in the genome is read by thousands of different interacting computers, running under multiple interacting operating systems. The software engineering feat of the Venter scientists merely replaced the application program set of the original organism with a genetically engineered new application program set. The operating systems and the thousands of interacting computers in the cell whose genome was replaced remained intact. To put this in perspective, copying the binary code of a program to a USB drive and then inserting the drive into another computer is not creating a system "from scratch."
Only the set of application programs were replaced, with each of the thousands of individual programs having the instructions and coded information that can be read and interpreted by the existing computer hardware and software in life. That information is used to carry out the tasks of life, such as replication and protein construction. The fact that intelligent software engineers were able to transfer the prescriptive algorithms and coded information matching the target genome in a manner that allowed the existing hardware of life to process that information speaks well of the ingenuity of the scientists involved (even though they didn't understand the details of what was copied). Although information for a "new" form of life was artificially manufactured, the artificial genome would be totally useless without the supporting life to process its information. Although prescriptive algorithms are implemented in the genome for accomplishing life's tasks, the Venter Scientists didn't write the algorithmic instructions, but rather generated the equivalent digital sequence with no regard as to what the instructions were going to do.
I do have a problem with some of the wording, such as produced by "chemical synthesis," implying non-life (as opposed to "biochemical"). While it is true that the components used were not alive (since each was only a needed component of life), in actually, all of the components were produced by living organisms, using genetic engineering principles. Furthermore, the synthesis itself could only be done in a living organism since "Our results indicated that these products cannot be stably [sic] maintained in E. coli so recombined DNA had to be extracted from yeast." This was not organic chemistry, but biochemistry. A minor quibble (other authors have also misused): "The cells with only the synthetic genome are self replicating and capable of logarithmic growth." "Exponential" growth is what they apparently meant.
A couple of important aspects of this research can be highlighted. The new genome was engineered using computers "starting from digitized genome sequence information." This verifies the digital computing nature of life. The complexity and specificity of life’s information is highlighted by "obtaining an error-free genome that could be transplanted into a recipient cell to create a new cell controlled only by the synthetic genome was complicated and required many quality control steps. Our success was thwarted for many weeks by a single base pair deletion in the essential gene dnaA. One wrong base out of over one million in an essential gene rendered the genome inactive." One wonders how "nature" could have achieved such specificity with no intelligent direction.
One of the things this research supports is the idea that (at least for the two bateria involved) life uses common operating systems, programming languages, and devices (otherwise the programs for one machine wouldn't execute on another). Undoubtedly, Darwinists will use this as evidence of common descent, whereas others will see this as evidence of common design (why would a good designer be obligated to implement unique components to accomplish the same result, such as manufacturing the same protein in two different organisms). I (and many others) have pointed out the likelihood of this ubiquitiousness in my books and presentations.
A pertinent quote from PNNP-Lite p49 (a similar quote is on page 53 of PoL): "From the information perspective, the genetic system is a preexisting operating system of unknown origin that supports the storage and execution of a wide variety of specific genetic programs (the applications), each program being stored in DNA. DNA is a storage medium, not a computer, that specifies all information needed to support the growth, metabolism, parts manufacturing, etc. for a specific organism via gene subprograms. Technically, DNA is an example of shared memory in a distributed heterogeneous multiprocessor system... For DNA, there are multiple differing enzyme computers simultaneously reading different portions of the DNA genetic code, each producing its own output (for example, via mRNA). Each cell has over 2,000 different enzyme computers that read the shared memory data in DNA, processing that data according to the individual programs, many operating independently (though many operations require multiple cooperating enzymes). The native language includes a coding system (codon-based encryption) whose codes are read by enzyme-based "computers," each having its own OS. The enzyme’s output (via mRNA) is to another OS in a ribosome, which has its own program stored in its RNA, where the codes are decrypted. The needed output signals are then transmitted to the tRNA computer (which has picked up its associated amino acid via its program and OS) so that the amino acid specified by the codon is transported to the construction site to be added to the protein being built. For any functional communication to occur, a prerequisite is that both sender and receiver of each communication step know the communication protocol and how to handle the message. There are multiple OSs, multiple programming languages, encoding/decoding hardware and software, specialized communications systems, error detection and correction mechanisms, specialized input/output channels for organelle control and feedback, and a variety of specialized 'devices' to accomplish the tasks of life."
The bottom line is that the Venter scientists accomplished something never before done. They put together components produced by living organisms, selected by genetic engineering to match a computer-specified sequence of digital information matching a target genome, in order to produce a genome matching that target. The resulting genome replaced the native genome of another bacterium of a different type, resulting in a "new" life form matching the target life. Perhaps the capability to build life for specific properties will follow, for example to destroy cancer cells or to eat oil from spills. Other capabilies may not be as attractive, such as creating a weapon destructive to human life, that would leave other life (and property) unharmed.