Synthetic Cells or Just a Case of Wishful Thinking?
The month of May, 2010 will be a historic one for science. It is the month that brought us, if you believe what you hear in the news media, synthetic life. That’s right. We were told with a great deal of fanfare and media hype, that 15 years of hard work by scientists at the Venter Institute had culminated in the creation of the first “synthetic cell” labeled Mycoplasma capricolum.
What exactly did these researchers do? The present study by senior author J. Craig Venter, PhD, founder, chairman, and president of the J. Craig Venter Institutes, Rockville, Maryland, and San Diego, California, and his colleagues combined their ability to transplant a bacterial genome with the technological expertise to build that genome from DNA fragments. Because M. genitalium grows slowly, the investigators chose the more rapidly growing M. mycoides subspecies capri as the donor strain and M. capricolum subspecies capricolum as the recipient (Beals 2010).
The reason it is so important to look very carefully at the facts surrounding such a heavily-hyped scientific announcements is, that more often than not, the reality does not live up to the hype. In order to gauge the true value of this work with regard to the evolution/creation debate, we should look at the microorganism involved more closely.
Mycoplasma is a genus of bacteria that lack a cell wall. Without a cell wall, they are unaffected by many common antibiotics such as penicillin or other beta-lactam antibiotics that target cell wall synthesis. They can be parasitic, living off other living organisms, or saprotrophic, living off the decomposing organic matter. Several species are pathogenic in humans including M. pneumoniae, which is an important cause of atypical pneumonia and other respiratory disorders, and M. genitalium, which is believed to be involved in pelvic inflammatory diseases. Genus Mycoplasma is limited to vertebrate hosts.
Genus Mycoplasma has a small genome. This is one of the reasons it was chosen by these researchers. The second published complete bacterial genome sequence was that of M. genitalium. This is one of the smallest genomes of free-living organisms (Fraser et al. 1995) and the M. pneumoniae genome sequence was published soon afterwards. It was the first genome sequence determined by primer walking of a cosmid library instead of the whole-genome shotgun method (Himmelreich, et al. 1996). Mycoplasma genomics and proteomics continue in efforts to understand the so-called minimal cell (Hutchison & Montague, 2002). These attributes made Mycoplasma the logical genus to work with, especially if you are using the more rapidly growing M. mycoides as the researchers did in these experiments.
Was it as simply as “just add water and mix”?
There is a fallacy that has been promoted by the proponents of evolutionary theory ever since the days of the failed Miller-Urey experiments of the 1950’s. Those experiments attempted to reproduce the environment of primordial earth in an attempt to prove that life could spontaneously arise from inorganic matter if all of the conditions were perfectly suited to abiogenesis (that life could arise from non-living, inorganic substances). Never mind that the concept that inorganic matter could become organic matter had been thoroughly debunked. The first solid evidence against spontaneous generation came in 1668 from Francesco Redi, who proved that no maggots appeared in meat when flies were prevented from laying eggs. It was gradually shown that, at least in the case of all the higher and readily visible organisms, the previous sentiment regarding spontaneous generation was false. The final nail in the coffin of this evolutionary hypothesis was driven in by the work of Louis Pasteur. By the middle of the 19th century, the theory of biogenesis had accumulated so much evidential support that the alternative theory of spontaneous generation had finally been laid to rest.
Evolutionary scientists are given to oversimplification
If anyone doubts that evolutionary theory is rooted in symbolism over substance and wishful thinking rather than hard evidence, look at the hundreds of millions dollars that have been spent in efforts to find life in outer space. We are constantly bombarded with the ever-optimistic musings of NASA scientists and astrobiologists. Each probe is designed to find H2O. This is based upon the concept that, in their estimation, since the evolutionary miracle of life occurred here on planet Earth, it could happen again, given the fact that outer space seems to be infinitely large, and evolutionary science factors in their magic ingredient of deep time.
It is in this same vein that the work of the scientists at the Venter Institute is being promoted, not by them, but by an over zealous media. They take these scientific breakthroughs as evidence against the biblical account of creation in the book of Genesis, and support for the Darwinian Theory of “molecules to men” or “goo to you by the way of the zoo.”
So how did the star struck press share this work with the rest of the world? Here are a few headlines that accompanied articles based upon the research done at the Venter Institute.
“Researchers Say They Created a ‘Synthetic Cell’”
The New York Times. Published: May 20, 2010
“Scientists Create Cell Based on Man-made Genetic Instructions”
The Washington Post. Published: May 21, 2010
“A Step to Artificial Life: Manmade DNA Powers Cell”
The Associated Press. Published: May 21, 2010
“Scientists create cell based on man-made genetic instructions”
ABC News. Published: May 21, 2010
“Local Scientists Create Artificial Life (Really)
NBC News. Published: May 21, 2010
A Step To Artificial Life: Manmade DNA Powers Cell”
CBS News. Published: May 21, 2010
“News - Scientists make artificial life”
BBC News. Published: May 20, 2010
When the press uses such extraordinary publicity with little or no concern for the facts, what will be the outcome? It is a fair question to ask why all the incredible media hype is being connected to this particular research. This is certainly an important step in research into the field of genetics. There may be some very important benefits from this work, however, these news organizations are not hyping the possible benefits, they are publicizing something else. They are all singing the same tune, marching to the same drummer.
Other researchers chime in, and they are not impressed
When you cut through all the evolutionary propaganda, you find something far different than what is being promoted by the news media. You get to the facts of the research, and you discover what is really happening. And with casual skepticism, Jim Collins, PhD, professor, Department of Biomedical Engineering, and co-director of the Center for BioDynamics, College of Engineering, Boston University, Massachusetts, responded to the hype: “The work...is an important advance in our ability to re-engineer organisms; it does not represent the making of new life from scratch,” he pointed out (Beals 2010).
Dr. Collins considers the “synthetic cell" as synthetic only “in the sense that its DNA is synthesized, not in that a new life form has been created. Its genome is a stitched-together copy of the DNA of an organism that exists in nature, with a few small tweaks thrown in.... Frankly,” said Dr. Collins, “scientists do not know enough about biology to create life” (Beals 2010).
There are many scientists who see this work as eliminating the need for divine intervention where life on Earth is concerned. Still, when all is said and done, these researchers have not created life at all. They have not even created the building blocks of life. They did take already existing cellular material and manipulated it. Not unlike the manipulation of the ingredients in that alleged primordial soup that Miller and Urey cooked up in 1953. Like Miller and Urey before them, these researchers have only proved that Intelligent beings can take what God has already created, and splice and dice, shake and bake, but they only provide evidence of Intelligent Design.
At the Creation Studies Institute, we believe that God alone is the Creator of life. Only He can create ex nihilo. He alone is omniscient and omnipotent, thereby having the knowledge and the power to design the infinitely complex and exquisitely diverse organisms that populate our planet. Even the most basic life forms, from the so-called minimal cells of Genus Mycoplasma to the pluripotent embryonic stems cells containing all the genetic information necessary to differentiate into brain cells, liver cells, cardiac cells, nerve cells, etc. We see His fingerprints as the Master Designer of all that exists, from the smallest particles in the universe, to the most complex biological systems we can discover.
It takes an enormous leap of blind faith to believe that life can arise spontaneously, contrary to the law of biogenesis, from inorganic matter. I guess that is the reason for all the media hype. The facts support special creation. The intelligent design we see in all living things logically speaks to us about the Creator. Those who have rejected the Creator need to fabricate evidence contrary to their own senses, e.g. if there is a creation, there must be a Creator. Instead they promote anything they think explains life without a mention of that Creator, and in doing so, they remain entrenched in darkness. Pray that the Light of the world, Messiah Jesus, would shine His light into their dark minds and revealing Himself to them.
Steven Rowitt, Th.M., Ph.D.(c)
Chief Technical Advisor
Creation Studies Institute
Beals Jacquelyn K. (2010). Did scientists create a synthetic cell? It depends who you ask.
Medscape Medical News. Medscape Today. Accessed 20:00 on 5/24/10 at http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/722285.
Beals Jacquelyn K. (2010). Ibid. Dr. Collins characterization of the research.
Beals Jacquelyn K. (2010). Ibid.
Fraser, C.M., Gocayne, J.D., White, O., et al. (1995). “The minimal gene complement of Mycoplasma genitalium.” Science 270 (5235): 397–403. PMID 7569993. Firstaccessed 20:30 on 5/24/10 at http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/pmidlookup?view=long&pmid=7569993.
Himmelreich, R., Hilbert, H., Plagens, H., Pirkl, E., Li, B.C., Herrmann, R. (1996). “Complete sequence analysis of the genome of the bacterium Mycoplasma pneumoniae.” Nucleic Acids Res. 24 (22): 4420–49. doi:10.1093/nar/24.22.4420. PMID 8948633. PMC 146264. Accessed 20:45 on 5?24/10 at http://nar.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/pmidlookup?view=long& pmid=8948633.
Hutchison, C.A., Montague, M.G. (2002). “Mycoplasmas and the minimal genome concept”. Molecular Biology and Pathogenicity of Mycoplasmas (Razin S, Herrmann R, eds.). New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum. pp. 221–54. ISBN 0306472872.