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Creating the First Synthetic Life Form
Regine Debatty, 23 Dec 05

n1585_mgenitalium.jpgThe University of British Columbia is working on the first human-made species -- a microbe made from scratch. The project is being spearheaded by Craig Venter, who gained fame by completing a privately-owned map of the human genome in 2000.

Several groups are trying to make synthetic genes in hopes of constructing microbes that perform useful tasks, such as producing industrial chemicals, clean energy or drugs. The Columbia team is pushing the technology to its limits by trying to put together an entirely synthetic genome.

They are working to construct a simpler version of the bacteria known as Mycoplasma genitalium, a single-cell bacterium with just one chromosome and 517 genes. The researchers believe their version will be able to survive with only 250 to 400 genes -- each of which they are making themselves, one chemical piece at a time.

For sparking life in a lab-made genome, they plan to use high-voltage electricity to zap open a host bacteria and slowly infuse it with small pieces of new DNA.

Via PhysOrg < The Globe and Mail.

(WorldChanging has covered similar concepts in the past, including Venter's success at synthesizing a virus, the "Synthetic Biology" movement, and the creation of "vesicle bioreactors" that have many -- but not all -- of the features of microbial life. -- Jamais)

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Does this take us any closer to understanding life itself? I don't think so. In creating synthetic forms of life we are just tinkering with the mechanisms of life. DNA is not life.

Posted by: Martin Bebow on 23 Dec 05

Martin, I don't understand your cynical tone. No one is saying DNA = life. DNA is a most necessary component of life. Each dual spiral strand in our bodies is a conglomerate of self-organizing energies, which have redesigned themselves through billions of years of biological evolution. To belittle scientific developments is to fight against the slow step-like progress of artificial life.

How these discoveries help us "understand" life might not be evident to you, but in hindsight they are integral steps towards inevitable synthetic biological technology.

Posted by: David Spoey on 23 Dec 05

I suppose this is simply the natural development of a course of scientific development that has included selective breeding, genetic engineering, cloning, nanoengineering and artificial intellgence but doesn't this also put us one step closer towards 'playing God'?

While I am not a reactionary, nor a Luddite of any kind, such a project to actually design an organism from scratch seems to warrent a discussion of the philosophical ramifications of such an act and the precedent it may set...

Posted by: JesseJenkins on 23 Dec 05

Are we playing God by designing hominid robots?
Aren't we playing God by genetically engineering crops?
Aren't we playing God by creating children?

IMHO, the philosophical ramifications are this: humans are creating new forms of physicality each second. This not a new phenomena, and maybe we are "playing God," but playing God is an assumption for a pantheist like myself.

Posted by: David Spoey on 23 Dec 05

Well, here's my quirky perspective: when I see a creature in a zoo, I don't believe I'm actually seeing that creature. A leopard in a cage isn't a leopard - because no organism ends at its skin or cell wall. The true definition of the organism is its corpus and its context - its environment. This has to be, because organisms and their environment co-evolve. Looking at one without the other is like trying to see matter without energy, Yin without Yang, figure without ground.

So when I see "new life" such as this, I wonder what its environment is, and how the two will co-evolve. I don't think we can predict that. When we breed a new sheep, we have a pretty clear view of how that sheep will interact with its environment. But when we introduce a new organism into an unprepared environment, we rarely improve anything - think rabbits in Australia, zebra mussels in the Great Lakes, rats in Hawaii.

Is a synthetic life form a new breed of sheep or a rabbit in the Outback? I don't think we know yet, and I worry that rushing ahead with this kind of work is pure hubris. I don't see what's "inevitable" about it, unless by "inevitable" one means the pressure within biotech community to be the first with the breakthrough, the prestigious paper, the big grant and the status.

I'm not advocating a rejection of this kind of research. I'm a layperson, and my views may be ill-informed. But I think we need thoughtful, inclusive discussion about this kind of work, and a willingness to think long and hard about consequences.

Posted by: David Foley on 24 Dec 05

This can hardly be called “synthetic” life. It’s just genetic engineering-xtreme (if it succeeds). Synthetic life would be a totally human-built organism (which i suspect is not possible).

That said, i see this and all genetic engineering as a very dangerous thing. We underestimate the dangers of the tinkering we’re doing and the repercussions it will have in the future. As a species, we have demonstrated we are not responsible about things like this, even once we understand the ramifications of our actions. For example: We now know that global warming is a real threat to our planet, yet we continue to burn fossil fuel at an ever expanding rate. And for what? So mom can take the kiddies to soccer practice? Or so we can run to the store to buy a quart of milk because we failed to plan ahead and buy enough last time we were at the store? We often act without regard for the consequences of our actions.

As for “playing god,” that is a purely philosophical concept, not an absolute. It is a way of suggesting we’re doing something unnatural which may have dangerous ramifications which we don’t fully appreciate. So genetic engineering certainly qualifies. Making babies does not (not because it doesn’t necessarily have dangerous ramifications, but because it is natural.)

Posted by: Michael K on 24 Dec 05

"This can hardly be called “synthetic” life. It’s just genetic engineering-xtreme (if it succeeds). Synthetic life would be a totally human-built organism (which i suspect is not possible)."

I agree. The headline makes it sounds like they're trying to "create life from scratch" while evidently what they are actually doing is injecting "artificial" DNA into an existing bacterium. While this is certainly an interesting and worthwhile experiment (can't agree about it being "dangerous"), it is basically genetic engineering and not the creation of a true synthetic organism.

BTW, when I read stories like this I wonder why it does NOT seem possible to create life from scratch at this point. If we really had a good understanding of the mechanisms of DNA (and I know DNA does not = "life) it seems we ought to be able to do this. That we cannot at this stage argues for gaps (possibly large ones) in the current theory.

Posted by: John F on 25 Dec 05

The 'playing g-d' arguement is just tired. The arguement that making babies is 'natural' is also tired. We can test for genetic predispositions to certain diseases and choose not to take the chance on having a diseased baby. How is that natural? How is that not playing g-d?

To see this and all genetic engineering as a dangerous thing is to not understand the science, not trust the scientists nor the governmental bodies responsible for assuring us of our safety. It has yet to be shown that GMO crops are in and of themselves bad for human health. It has yet to be shown that synthetic life forms will run amok, mindlessly consuming all the carbon in the universe.

Unless you know that what these labs are doing is dangerous (and how can you if you don't understand the science itself?), do you have any reason to fear or doubt it? They could be as transparent as possible and still you'd no more sure if what they were doing was good or bad for you or anyone else.

Posted by: David Lucas on 26 Dec 05

With the Precautionary Principle at long last beginning to take hold in a growing number of jurisdictions, with the European Union moving to overturn "innocent until proven guilty" chemical management (with its REACH directive), it's odd to hear comments so reminiscent of the arguments we've heard for decades about pollution:

> "Unless you know that what these labs
> are doing is dangerous (and how can you
> if you don't understand the science itself?),
> do you have any reason to fear or doubt it?"

Genomic sciences - and nanotech - hold out enormous potential; but do we really want to loose potentially irreversible changes into open ecosystems before we understand what we're doing?

How about this:
"Unless you know that what these labs are doing is safe, do you have any reason to permit them to proceed without any review or restraint?"

Posted by: Gil Friend on 26 Dec 05

David, my question is not cynical but I think to the point. The central question about life and the evolution of life that never seems to get asked is whether evolution is a cause or an effect of life. For example, did man evolve the physical apparatus of speech randomly, or did man need to speak and did this 'need' direct the evolution of a flexible jaw and tongue? What is life? Will we ever be able to really define it?

Posted by: Martin Bebow on 28 Dec 05



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