Dr. Venter calls the result a “synthetic cell” and is presenting the research as a landmark achievement that will open the way to creating useful microbes from scratch to make products like vaccines and biofuels. At a press conference Thursday, Dr. Venter described the converted cell as “the first self-replicating species we’ve had on the planet whose parent is a computer.”

“This is a philosophical advance as much as a technical advance,” he said, suggesting that the “synthetic cell” raised new questions about the nature of life…

Some other scientists said that aside from assembling a large piece of DNA, Dr. Venter has not broken new ground. “To my mind Craig has somewhat overplayed the importance of this,” said David Baltimore, a geneticist at Caltech. He described the result as “a technical tour de force,” a matter of scale rather than a scientific breakthrough.

“He has not created life, only mimicked it,” Dr. Baltimore said.

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Professor Julian Savulescu, from the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford, said the potential of this science was “in the far future, but real and significant”.

“But the risks are also unparalleled,” he continued. “We need new standards of safety evaluation for this kind of radical research and protections from military or terrorist misuse and abuse.

“These could be used in the future to make the most powerful bioweapons imaginable. The challenge is to eat the fruit without the worm.”

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One of the biggest problems is that scientists are still searching for the specific genetic code to produce cheap drugs, biofuel and other products.

“We can write anything we want,” said Arnold. “The problem is that we don’t know what to write.”

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