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The San Diego Union-Tribune reports (accessed via HPCwire) that scientists, with the help of supercomputers, have made the first ever synthetic cell.

J. Craig Venter led a team that extracted DNA from existing bacteria and redesigned the entire genetic code on a computer. Then, the scientists spliced together pieces of real DNA to create in real life the genetic code that they constructed on the computer. The last step was to insert the new genetic code into the bacteria from which the old code was extracted.

The significance of this creation was described by Venter himself:

This is the first “synthetic cell” that is controlled by a synthetic chromosome. The DNA came from four bottles of chemicals, and the design of the cell was done on the computer. [. . .] It is a living species. It is self-replicating. Its only genetic code is what we built into it chemically. Every protein is dictated by that genetic code. This is a new, independent species whose origin was the computer, not some genetic relative.

This discovery offers many new avenues for research and technology. Work in synthetic biology helps tackle the energy problem by exploring new biofuels. New medicines can be synthetically created that are very specific in targeting the harmful virus or bacteria that they seek to destroy.

But, as Venter recognizes himself, there is a potential that this technology will fall into the wrong hands. It is conceivable that terrorists may synthesize and produce biological weapons of mass destruction that are designed in the lab for maximum lethality to humans. As with most new technology, there are ethical issues to be worked out before we can feel safe using it.

It’s bizarre to think that a supercomputer has given birth to a genetically unique organism. As a society, we will have to rearrange our old categories and ways of thought to accommodate these wildly different realities about life. It’s vital, in my opinion, that we do this continually as the pace of technological innovation accelerates.