First, scientists said they had cobbled together a man-made organism, a synthetic microbe from various parts and laboratory chemicals. Then some Nobel laureates were quoted saying it wasn't breaking any new ground.

Which is it?

The University of Pennsylvania's Art Caplan, who headed a bioethics team that vetted the project, voted for awe, describing it as "creating whole new living things from inanimate parts" - a Frankensteinian feat.

So did the government. The president immediately requested an investigation by the White House bioethics commission, and congressional hearings began last week over the dangers of synthetic biology.

This is different from the mixed reactions that have greeted other controversial claims. When a NASA team said it had found life in a Martian meteorite back in the 1990s, skeptics disputed the finding, and the claim has since been widely debunked.

Here, no one seems to doubt that this team, led by biologist J. Craig Venter, accomplished what it said - synthesizing a genetic code from chemicals, transplanting it into an emptied-out cell, and bringing it to life.

In this case, the experts disagreed over the words used to describe the creation.

Some expressed exasperation that anyone might report that scientists had "created life." And yet they created something that seems to be alive.

One source of confusion comes from the fact that there's no universal definition of life - it's kind of fluid.

Biologist Andrew Ellington of the University of Texas said people use something like Justice Potter Stewart's definition of pornography - they know it when they see it.

But as scientists continue to create "synthetic" DNA from laboratory chemicals and otherwise explore the boundaries between life and inanimate matter, it becomes clear there is no dividing line.

Last year, scientists at the Scripps Research Institute in California created DNA-like structures that can do some very lifelike things - store information, reproduce multiple generations, and evolve though natural selection.

That system uses a DNA relative called RNA. Two different molecules of RNA are set up so each can build the other from component parts. The lead researcher, Gerald Joyce, compared it to the famous M.C. Escher painting of two hands curling around to draw each other.

In the process, small errors allow new forms to evolve.

Joyce's system suggests that evolution may have begun working before anything as complex as bacteria existed. That is, evolution was acting on information-carrying molecules - RNA or some precursor to RNA.

Chemicals, in essence, evolved into life.

The Venter team's organism wasn't born of an attempt to re-create the origin of life. It set out to build a man-made version of an existing organism from synthetic stuff and parts of other organisms.

Team members made the genetic code out of chemicals with some assistance from yeast cells. Then they inserted this synthetic DNA into an emptied-out cell from a different type of bacteria and watched it "boot up," as they put it.

What's astonishing about this is that they created a synthetic version of the bacterium M. mycoides from various chemicals and parts of other organisms - none of which came from M. mycoides.

This is like making a fully functioning sheep from a vat of laboratory chemicals and parts from a pig and a cow. Even Dolly, the famous clone, was made using other sheep.

Venter described the team's accomplishment as the first self-replicating species on the planet whose parent is a computer.

It might make an interesting paternity suit.

What's shocking about the new organism isn't that it breaches a boundary between inanimate matter and life, but that it shows that no such boundary exists.

Life is chemistry. Chemicals aren't just dull, dead matter. They have the power to assemble themselves into organisms - even complicated ones that can contemplate their own place in the universe and expand upon the living world. Who could fail to be amazed?

Contact staff writer Faye Flam at 215-854-4977 or fflam@phillynews.com.