What if you could create life in a test tube?
The BBC reports work done at the Rockefeller University which comes closer than ever to just that. Vincent Noireaux and Albert Libchaber, at the Center for Studies in Physics and Biology at New York's Rockefeller University, have constructed what they call "vesicle bioreactors" which can express genes and have crude cell-like parts.
The soft cell walls are made of fat molecules taken from egg white. The cell contents are an extract of the common gut bug E. coli, stripped of all its genetic material.
This essence of life contains ready-made much of the biological machinery needed to make proteins; the researchers also added an enzyme from a virus to allow the vesicle to translate DNA code.
When they added genes, the cell fluid started to make proteins, just like a normal cell would.
A gene for green fluorescent protein taken from a species of jellyfish was the first they tried. The glow from the protein showed that the genes were being transcribed.
The researchers go out of their way to state that these are not living organisms, and are just biological machines which happen to replicate many of the functions of living organisms. Even taking their claims at face value, it's clear that we're not too far from being able to construct entirely new organisms in laboratories, and have made significant progress along those lines since the last time we mentioned synthetic biology here on WorldChanging.
If ever there was a situation that called for the precautionary principle, this is it. But I would like to see a real application of precautionary analysis, not simply knee-jerk prohibition. Wholly synthetic creations may actually be a safer pathway than altering more complex extant organisms when it comes to efforts in bioremediation or the like, and a precautionary approach should pay attention to those possibilities. Simpler organisms would have fewer opportunities for unexpected interactions and outcomes, for example, and "kill switch" genes (making the synthetic cell require a rare resource to survive, for example) would be easier to introduce. Synthetic biology has obvious potential dangers, and these should not be underestimated, but no one should assume that the only possible outcomes from this kind of research is negative.
This was an interesting article. Strange that the scientist in question would add add "For me, life is just like a machine - a machine with a computer program. There's no more to it than than that."
This seems to me to provide some additional weight to the call for precautionary analysis. I am concerned by this kind of scientific hubris; I would be more comforted by comments showing a capacity for wonder and humility, and some appreciation of mystery. But maybe he was misquoted or decontextualized.