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?