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Why Craig Venter Isn't Actually God

Craig Venter isn't God, some bloggers are saying in the wake of the hype over the researcher's latest achievement — and people who should know better should stop talking as if he is the be-all and end-all of science. John Horgan, guest blogger for Scientific American, says, "Craig Venter is the Lady Gaga of science. Like her, he is a drama queen, an over-the-top performance artist with a genius for self-promotion. Hype is what Craig Venter does, and he does it extremely well." But others, like bioethicist Arthur Caplan, should quit the hype, Horgan says. On his Web site, Caplan proclaimed the problem of creating life to be "solved." But in reality, Horgan says, all Venter did was to take "just another incremental step in the human manipulation of life, which began millennia ago when our ancestors started breeding dogs and ducks and accelerated recently as a result of advances in biotechnology." Horgan quotes Mark Bedau, the editor of the journal Artificial Life, who said that what Venter did was really to re-create an existing bacterial life form with a prosthetic genome. "As Bedau and others point out, scientists still have not come close to creating a living organism from nonbiological materials," Horgan says. "Scientists have not shown how life began." Hype notwithstanding, he adds, the creation of life is still as mysterious as ever.

At his Huffington Post blog, Neil Greenspan also says there's too much hype. Greenspan points to critics such as Boston University synthetic biologist Jim Collins, who says designing even a two-gene network that works the way you want it to is very hard. "So the notion that anyone could design a new genome from scratch, as opposed to mostly copying an existing genome and tweaking it a bit, is difficult to take seriously in the foreseeable future," Greenspan says. At this point, he adds, it's impossible to predict whether this achievement will mean the advent of new technologies and discoveries or if it will just be an interesting footnote. But, he says, "regardless of which outcome ensues, media claims of a 'breakthrough' are either premature or wrong."

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