Scientists announce creation of synthetic bacteria

Both creationist and intelligent design writers argue that science has yet to understand the origin of life, and that this is a fatal flaw in evolutionary theory [Behe1996; Dembski1998]. It is true that scientists don’t yet understand the origin of life, in particular the origin of the first self-replicating biomolecules. What’s more, unlike bony structures that leave fossil records, the early stages of chemical evolution on the planet very likely have been completely erased, so that we may never know for sure exactly what transpired. Nonetheless, numerous intriguing results have recently been obtained.

In May 2010 a team led by human genome entrepreneur Craig Venter succeeded in synthesizing the entire genome of a bacteria and using it to take over a cell. Based on a computer-designed sequence, the team ordered DNA in sections of 1000 base pairs from a commercial DNA synthesis firm, then assembled them into a single piece with 1,080,000 bases. In a second step, they directed the synthetic DNA to take over control of a bacterial cell, generating proteins according to the new DNA instead of its own. Venter characterizes the converted cell as “the first self-replicating species we’ve had on the planet whose parent is a computer” [Wade2010a].

Scientists are quick to emphasize that Venter’s team has not created life from scratch, since bacteria and yeast were used to combine and duplicate over million base pairs in the synthetic genome. But the demonstration is undeniably a landmark achievement along the path to completely synthetic life, and underscores the progress modern science has achieved in understanding life. As physicist Richard Feynman once quipped (as one of several quotes that have been encoded in the new genome), “What I cannot build I cannot understand.” [Callaway2010].

There are numerous other examples as well [Bailey2010a]. Here is a brief summary:

  • Researchers recently found that certain RNA molecules can greatly increase the rate of specific chemical reactions, including, remarkably, the replication of parts of other RNA molecules. Thus if a molecule like RNA could “self-catalyze” itself in this manner, perhaps with the assistance of some related molecules, RNA could form the basis for a very simple and primitive organism [NAS2008, pg. 22]. Along this line, Alexander Vlassov, a scientist working at a biotech company in Santa Cruz, California, recently found that if he cooled certain RNA segments down below freezing, the RNA chain spontaneously joined its ends into a circle. These findings suggested that the first, very inefficient RNA enzyme molecules may have been aided by ice, which permitted short segments to combine and behave as a much larger molecule [Fox2008].
  • In a related development, in February 2010 scientists at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego announced that they have synthesized RNA enzymes, known as ribozymes, that can replicate themselves without the help of any proteins or other cellular components. What’s more, these simple molecules can act as catalysts and continue the process indefinitely. As researcher Gerald Joyce noted, “The key thing is it replicates itself, and passes information from parent to progeny down the line. … Some functions are more fit than others, and those that are more fit ‘breed’ more, and are perpetuated more efficiently, and so it goes Darwinian.” [Kazan2010].
  • Also in February 2010, researchers at the University of Colorado showed that a very simple RNA molecule can catalyze chemical reactions, without any other proteins present. Their form of RNA involved only five nucleotides. As researcher Michael Yarus noted, “This work shows that RNA enzymes could have been far smaller, and therefore far easier to make under primitive conditions, than anyone has expected.” [Colorado2010].

Whatever the outcome of these lines of research, it must be kept in mind that the process of evolution after the origin of the first biomolecules is very well attested in fossils, radiometric measurements, DNA, and numerous other lines of evidence, completely independent of how the first biomolecules formed. In other words, the remaining uncertainties in the biogenesis arena have no bearing on the central hypothesis of evolution, namely that species are related in a family tree, having proliferated and adapted over the eons under the influence of natural forces. What’s more, to the extent that creationist and intelligent design writers continue to emphasize the biogenesis issue, they risk being discredited, even in the public eye, as new and ever-more-remarkable developments are announced.


  1. [Bailey2010a] David H. Bailey, “Do scientists understand the origin of life? What is the impact of this on evolutionary theory?”, 21 May 2010, available at Online article.
  2. [Behe1996] Michael J. Behe, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1996.
  3. [Callaway2010] Ewen Callaway, “Immaculate creation: birth of the first synthetic cell,” New Scientist, 20 May 2010, available at Online article.
  4. [Colorado2010] “Scientists Create Tiny RNA Molecule With Big Implications for Life’s Origins,” ScienceDaily, 24 Feb 2010, available at Online article.
  5. [Dembski1998] William A. Dembski, The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance through Small Probabilities, Cambridge University Press, 1998.
  6. [Fox2008] Douglas Fox, “Funky Properties of Frozen Water May Have Made Life Possible,” 1 Feb 2008, available at Online article.
  7. [Kazan2010] Casey Kazan, “Evolution in a test tube: Scientists create immortal genetic molecule,” Daily Galaxy, 23 Feb 2010, available at
    Online article.

  8. [NAS2008] National Academy of Sciences, Institute of Medicine, Science, Evolution, and Creationism, National Academies Press, Washington, 2008.
  9. [Wade2010a] Nicholas Wade, “Researchers Say They Created a ‘Synthetic Cell’,” New York Times, 20 May 2010, available at Online article.

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