On the heels of this announcement touting the promise of synthetic biology comes an editorial in Nature intended to dampen the inevitable sensationalism around the equally inevitable creation of an organism in the lab. I really like the editors' take on this as they highlight the lack of clear thresholds in nature, even between the living and nonliving. Anyone interested in prions or viruses is familiar with the "alive or not" debate, and this editorial puts up the argument that we know exactly what 'life' is.
There is a popular notion that life is something that appears when a clear threshold is crossed. One might have hoped that such perceptions of a need for a qualitative difference between inert and living matter — such vitalism — would have been interred alongside the pre-darwinian belief that organisms are generated spontaneously from decaying matter. Scientists who regard themselves as well beyond such beliefs nevertheless bolster them when they attempt to draw up criteria for what constitutes 'life'. It would be a service to more than synthetic biology if we might now be permitted to dismiss the idea that life is a precise scientific concept....
.....Synthetic biology's view of life as a molecular process lacking moral thresholds at the level of the cell is a powerful one. And it can and perhaps should be invoked to challenge characterizations of life that are sometimes used to defend religious dogma about the embryo. If this view undermines the notion that a 'divine spark' abruptly gives value to a fertilized egg — recognizing as it does that the formation of a new being is gradual, contingent and precarious — then the role of the term 'life' in that debate might acquire the ambiguity that it has always warranted.
What is life? I think Opus said it best, don't you? Exactly