Ethics and 'Dr God'

Even in the rational world of biological science, the publication in Science of the findings of an American-based team of researchers caused considerable excitement.

A bacterial cell had been controlled by a chemically synthesised genome.

That meant that the cell began replicating and making a new set of proteins entirely controlled by man.

In the secular world, this was briefly sensational, and described somewhat effusively as the creation of the world's first "artificial cell".

Much foolish speculation along the lines of "Dr God" creating a synthetic man followed.

There is no doubt that the team employed at the J. Craig Venter Institute has achieved an important technical step towards the goal of creating artificial or synthetic life.

But we are a very long way indeed from realising some of the speculation: the construction of human limbs or body parts or even a human being in the laboratory.

That remains in the realm of fiction.

The stated goal of Dr Venter's team is to find a way to mass produce compounds useful for purposes such as manufacturing fuel or limiting CO2 production.

Dr Venter, who heads his own private corporation, and his team successfully combined two separate actions for the first time.

They created a bacterial chromosome; then they transferred it to a living bacterium where it replaced the DNA and began reproducing itself and making a new proteins.

That achievement has been correctly described as a "defining" moment in biological science, certainly on a par with other significant technical advances in genetic engineering.

It took more than a decade of effort by about 20 scientists, and as much as $US40 million of venture capital, much of it from multi-national corporations.

One of the most important steps the team had to take was to invent the ability to create and manipulate chromosomes, which success it first reported in Science magazine as recently as 2007.