An Artificial Self-Replicating Cell? Nope!

Recently a new, highly remarkable claim has been circulating that researchers have created the first artificial self-replicating cell. If true, this would represent a significant step towards the production of artificial life, potentially removing a stumbling block from a potential abiogenesis hypothesis. However, as usual, the headlines are completely misleading.

This research is hardly new. Craig Venter and his colleagues did something similar a few years ago and similar claims were made at the time. However, Venter’s self-replicating cells did not actually self-replicate, at least correctly. Instead, the produced malformed cells that would not survive very long in the prebiotic world, and would not represent a precursor to life. Other scientists have built on Venter’s work however, and the current iteration can self-replicate correctly. Checkmate theists right? Not so fast.

It turns out, there is a detail I left out that will change how you view this experiment. The pop-sci writers know that this detail will change your perception, so its not mentioned until usually several paragraphs into the article. The researchers did not build a whole new cell. In fact, they didn’t build any new cellular feature. Instead, they used an existing cell. Using specialized technology, they pulled the DNA code for the cell out of the nucleus and replaced it with a stripped down, synthesized code. The stripped down code allowed the cell to replicate properly.

The key point to notice here is that the researchers did not create a new cell. In fact, they didn’t create anything completely new. They synthesized new DNA yes, but they created no new genes, and no new information. All they did was remove genes that were not essential to living and self-replicating cells and put the DNA sequence back into the cell. They didn’t make a new mitochondria, new ribosomes, new proteins, nothing. All they made was a much reduced strand of DNA which is directly copied from the existing DNA. They did not make a new cell. They didn’t even make a new cellular organelle. They copied some DNA, which is no mean feat, but they made nothing new.

In case this is a little unclear for you, let me borrow an illustration from Dr. James Tour. This is not word for word but the illustration is his. This is like taking a Corvette, opening up the hood and taking out the control chip that runs the computers and taking it into the lab. In the lab, you could then duplicate the control chip, and take the duplicated chip back to the Corvette and put it back in place. All of that is good science until you point to the Corvette and tell people “I made that Corvette”. That is exactly how the research is being presented. As Tour says, they didn’t make a cell, they “… just made a cell worse!”.

Unfortunately, this is the common way that almost everything coming out of the origin of life community. They often bury the lead, often several paragraphs deep in the article. This is often also true of the stuff that comes out of the evolutionary biology community. The public is told that something amazing has happened in the headline and opening paragraphs. At that point, many people stop reading, assuming that the rest of the article simply backs up what they have already seen. However, six paragraphs in, the article will often tell the truth about what actually happened in the study. The general public, having already stopped reading, will walk away with a false impression of what happened.

For those interested in science at the layman level, there are a couple of things you can do to deal with this as the pop-sci articles are unlikely to start being open and forthright about what is actually going on. First of all, read the whole article and do not trust headlines. Second, look up unfamiliar terms. Third, ask good questions. Do not assume that the pop-sci report is unbiased or even truthful Be skeptical. Look things up and check them out for yourself. That may sound like work, but knowing the truth does take work. If you want to understand what is really going on, it is going to take some time and application, but it can be done.

Do you know what’s going to happen when you die? Are you completely sure? If you aren’t, please read this or listen to this. You can know where you will spend eternity. If you have questions, please feel free to contact us, we’d love to talk to you.

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