Reporters' Roundtable: What is artificial life? (podcast)

Craig Venter recently announced that he had modified a living organism by replacing its DNA with a synthetically-created genome. Today we're talking about this new technology, how it works, and what it means for all of us.

Rafe Needleman Former Editor at Large
Rafe Needleman reviews mobile apps and products for fun, and picks startups apart when he gets bored. He has evaluated thousands of new companies, most of which have since gone out of business.
Rafe Needleman
2 min read

This week, artificial life! Last month, of course, Craig Venter announced that he had modified a living organism by replacing its DNA with a synthetically-created genome. The J. Craig Venter Institute project took Mycoplasma capricolum bacteria and completely rewrote its genetic code of more than 1 million base pairs of DNA.

It's another step on the way to the creation of designed organisms. It's important science and it raises fascinating technological and ethical questions, some of which we'll be discussing today.

We have two great guests for this show. First, in the studio with us, Dr. Kiki Sanford from podcasts This Week in Science and Dr. Kiki's Science Hour.

And from the philosophy department of my alma mater, Reed College, Dr. Mark Bedau. Mark is also editor of the MIT journal Artificial Life.

Watch this: What is artificial life?


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Show notes and talking points

Let's do the science first. Kirsten, what did the Venter Institute do here?

What was the advance? There were milestones leading up to this...

What about the genome is artificial? (codes, embedded text, etc.)

What's next? Plastic-eating bacteria? Anti-cancer drugs? Fembots?

Benefits of this science?


What's the philosophical difference between creating "artificial life" in the lab and crossbreeding corn for pest resistance? Or dogs for herding sheep?

Patent/copyright: Who owns this life? Can life be owned?

Here's a letter from my dad, philosophy professor Jacob Needleman...reaction?

If I were talking to Venter I would ask him if he thinks it's misleading to say he created life. Certainly, as with cloning, we will have to wait and see what these created beings actually are like. In any case, from what i understand, what was done was to insert some chemically synthesized genes into one or another chromosomal strand. But the bacterium or microorganism is far more than its chromosomes--there is the whole organism which may determine and make possible the life of this being--the cytoplasm, mitochondria, etc. And since no single organism or species of organism can exist apart from a functional inter-relationship with other organisms and influences, one might be justified in saying one created life only if he created from scratch the whole necessary and interdependent context of living nature within which the microrganism exists and has its specific function.

But what do I know?--I'm only,

Yours truly,

Dad, Ph.D.

We have a few minutes left, so let's talk about God. Is it playing God to write DNA and have it reproduce?

Next time:
The Electronic Entertainment Expo, E3, opens on June 15, so the next show, on June 11, will give a preview of the future of computer games. Guests are Josh Lowensohn and Daniel Terdiman, both of whom will be covering E3 for CNET.

For updates: Watch me on Twitter (@Rafe).

E-mail comments to roundtable@cnet.com, and get all the show notes as well as replays and downloads of the podcast on the blog.