Issues in Biology
What it takes to make a synthetic cell
The cell theory states that cells only come from cells. Modern synthetic biologists use our understanding of the building blocks of cells to create a synthetic cell. What does it take to synthesize a cell? Let's first look at the major parts that make up a cell. We will use only bacterial (or prokaryotic) cells as a template:
Now, these components are found in various amounts that differ over time. We have looked at self-assembly and this is indeed a strategy followed in laboratories. It means to put together components of a complex system relying on them to interact in predictable ways to generate a higher order structure and function. To make a synthetic cell is a claim of using synthetic components and adding them together in the right proportions that allows them to behave as a whole, in this case a cell.
The recent claim by Craig Venter of a synthetic cell falls short of such an approach, as it is actually the use of a synthetic chromosome in an already existing cell.
What would it take for someone to take credit for the first fully synthetic cell? I would suggest that the following has to be achieved. This list sets a very high standard, as it should, because the claim of recreating life in the test tube is indeed a very great claim:
If this 'cell' construct starts to metabolize, synthesize proteins and RNA, replicate the DNA followed by cell replication, then and only then have you created a simple, cellular form of synthetic life.
There are valid scientific and philosophical reasons to reject the claim that this cell shall be called a synthetic cell.
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