Geneticist Craig Venter is at it again. Not content with shotgun-sequencing the human genome, Venter has recently speculated that designer bacteria might be the first wave in a process of converting other planets into human habitations. This speculation of course, piggybacks on Venter’s recent fame as the creator of the first synthetic life-form. A recent video by the New York Times, however, raises a pertinent question: ‘What exactly is life?’ Did Venter and his team actually create ‘artificial-life’? –or is his bacterial cell more of a Frankenstein’s monster than anything truly living?
This question has a long history in biology and philosophy. It’s inexorably tied up with questions about the essence of life, and indeed of humanity. Lucky for us though, we can skip tricky metaphysical questions about souls, élan vitals, and the like, and focus on something far more specific and parochial. Just what is needed – what are the nuts and bolts required – for life?
Famed Chilean team Humberto Maturana and Fransisco Varela believe that what is needed is a certain kind of organization – not, as the NYT article might have you believe, a certain set of ingredients. What is needed is a structure that not only creates a boundary (literally, an inner and outer space), but maintains that boundary. This is called autopoiesis. Fat corpuscles in solution sometimes display autopoiesis, but it is a fragile thing, and either exists or immediately dissipates. To give you an idea of this inherent fragility of such bare autopoietic entities, soap bubbles display something like autopoietic organization. Surely, this isn’t enough to count as living.
Expanding on the requirement of autopoiesis, philosophers Evan Thompson and Ezequiel Di Paolo have argued that these autopoietic organisms must additionally actively maintain their boundary, and be adaptive. These collectively mean that there must be some process where an organism can make sense of some aspects of the ‘outside’ world (which might be restricted to a few chemical elements), and indeed, have some anticipation of events. That is, the organism must be able to avoid undesirable circumstances, while promoting good circumstances. Only if such conditions hold can there be anything with more resilience than a soap bubble.
Where does Venter’s Mycoplasma laboratorium fit in? If life was just a matter of creating RNA or DNA sequences, then life has been created an innumerable number of times in genetic laboratories. But if life is a matter of organization, what then? Unfortunately, as much as I’d like to say that Venter’s little bug doesn’t fit the bill, I’m afraid that it does. Though the first cell was created by sucking out genetic information, and then shooting in created DNA (possibly creating some strange priority argument), subsequent daughter cells are all M. laboratorium. They do all the work required of them: they create a membrane (boundary), actively maintain it through inter-relationally defined organization, and actively engage with and anticipate events in the petri dish (swim towards nutrients, etc.).
The only questions that seem to remain for Venter and his team are ethical, and ultimately, fiscal.