Thursday, May 27, 2010

Mystery of life solved says New Scientist

I'm still puzzled by the synthetic cell story, and unclear as to its significance.  Alistair Elfick at the University of Edinburgh is quoted by New Scientist as saying that “it doesn't take us that much further scientifically”.
But in an editorial New Scientist says “If demonstration was needed that there is no such thing as the ‘mystery of life’, they have provided it in stunning style. The new life form they have made is derived from information, pure and simple.” 
That’s a real wow sentence.  But surely it overstates the case?  Because so far as I can tell we are no nearer finding out how to life first got started from inert matter.  So the ‘mystery of life’ remains.  Venter inserted the synthetic DNA into an existing cell as I understand it, or into the cytoplasm whatever that means. That first cell, with the synthetic DNA, then made masses of copies of itself.
But nobody has a clue how, starting with a bottle of chemicals on a lab bench, to make the first cell.  Or indeed how nature did it billions of years ago.  And that’s the question that really interests me.  Does what Venter has done get us any step along the road of understanding how life first arose?  I suspect the answer is no.