As has been widely reported, the J. Craig Venter Institute and other facilities are working to assemble the world's first synthetic organism from the bottom up. The goal is to create life from non-life. Science News has a great introduction to the science of synthetic life. (This article does not delve into the debate about whether synthetic organisms should be patentable.) From Science News:
"Simplicity has always been where we try to gain understanding," says John Glass of the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Md. "In a way, what we're doing is making a better platform for understanding what life is." It's a bit like learning the essentials of how a luxury car works by building a dune buggy from spare parts.
Some scientists, including Glass, hope to make such a minimal cell by whittling down the genome of an existing bacterium to its barest elements, and then synthesizing that minimal genome. In the lab, scientists can assemble the genomic DNA by piecing together chemicals called nucleotides, which constitute the individual letters of genetic code.
Other scientists, starting from long lists of molecules and genes, are devising plans to assemble these parts to make an entire cell, not just its genome, by hand.
Still other researchers take a radically different approach. Instead of trying to construct cells from the same proteins and DNA found in modern organisms, these investigators hope to assemble a cell from more-primitive molecules that better mimic the molecules probably involved in the origin of life. If successful, these scientists may uncover clues about how the original "spontaneous generation" of life occurred billions of years ago.