Venter Group Plagiarizes Genetic Code
Is plagiarism a form of intelligent design? We think of intelligent design in terms of God and creation, but in generic terms, I.D. only refers to purposeful, designed action by an agent – any agent, large or small, good or evil. A planned murder, for instance, can be an evil form of intelligent design. A forensic team can use design detection techniques to ferret out the evidence between death by murder over death by natural causes. In the same way, an attorney general can determine, using design detection techniques, whether an ad campaign broke copyright laws, and a professor can discern whether a student borrowed someone else’s material to write a term paper. The news is filled with dramatic announcements that Craig Venter’s lab has created an organism with the first “synthetic genome.” How should this achievement, dramatic and groundbreaking though it is, be understood?
Live Science headlined the story, “First Live Organism with Synthetic Genome Created.” The word “created” was emphatic in the article; “the J. Craig Venter Institute says they have succeeded in creating the first living organism with a completely synthetic genome.” It almost sounds like the lab created something entirely new from scratch – “artificial life.” New Scientist even used religious overtones, dubbing it an “Immaculate Creation.” A closer look, though, shows that the “synthetic genome” still used the 4-letter code of a living bacterium, and used its own transcription and translation machinery. It would be a little like a programmer inserting a USB drive with a program into an existing computer; the computer has to have the operating system and software to recognize the code. This is a far cry from making a computer with its own code and operating system, like the terms “artificial life” and “completely synthetic genome” imply. Science Daily’s headline was a little more accurate, saying, “Scientists ‘Boot Up’ a Bacterial Cell With a Synthetic Genome,” but even then, Venter’s team relied on an operating system and coding system that was already defined.
The Venter Institute found out some things about genomes by experience. Notably, they are not very forgiving. “Even a tiny inaccuracy could prevent the inert DNA from activating into a live bacterium, making accuracy paramount,” the Live Science article recounted. “At one point, a single base pair mistake set the entire program back three months.” The team also added panic code that would kill the organism if it left the lab, and took part in a bioethical review before the project. “It’s part of an ongoing process that we’ve been driving, trying to make sure that the science proceeds in an ethical fashion, that we’re being thoughtful about what we do and looking forward to the implications to the future,” Venter said.
Unlike surreptitious plagiarizers, the Venter Institute proudly planted watermarks in their genome. “The researchers deliberately inserted four sequences of DNA that serve as watermarks so they could distinguish between the naturally occurring and synthetic bacteria,” Live Science reported. “The watermarks contain a code that translates DNA into English letters with punctuation, allowing the scientists to literally write messages with the genes.” So what did they write? The 46 researchers included their names, and the names of some famous scientists, “and a URL that anyone who deciphers the code can e-mail.”
Geneticists keep walking right into the I.D. trap. Why don’t they acknowledge it? If an alien civilization discovered Venter’s genome, and read the names, would they be justified in making an inference to design? Of course. Then why would they be forced, according to the rules of the NCSE and the Darwin Party, to say that the explanation for the genetic code itself is blind chance and necessity? A message is a message. A function is a function. If the function of a URL is to allow a human to send an email, and the function of a signal transduction system is to send a hormone to a chromosome to stop or start transcription of a gene, what’s the difference? These are both examples of messages that carry out functions. Are we to assume that Venter’s lab found it worthwhile to plagiarize chaos? That would be like a professor giving a student an F for turning in a term paper that plagiarized gibberish.
Another lesson from this story is to avoid news media hype. This is an incremental step, not a breakthrough. Geneticists have been doing genetic engineering for years, including genetic watermarking. Scientists have inserted genes for insulin in bacteria, and genes for spider silk in goats. Venter’s lab has taken existing genes from bacteria and performed some reverse engineering on it, then inserted it back into the hardware of a living cell. Any way you look at it, it’s intelligent design. Venter, your work owes nothing to the Darwin Party and its ideology. Get on board with the I.D. Movement and give credit where credit is due.