Craig Venter and his team of scientists recently announced that they had created the first "synthetic cell" -- a bacterium controlled by genetic material that they had designed on a computer and concocted from four bottles of chemicals. This is the closest thing to creating life that has happened outside of a science-fiction movie. If it doesn't fire your imagination, then you should fire your imagination.
Basically, what Venter et al did was remove the "brain" (the genetic material that runs the cell) from one species of bacteria (Mycoplasma capricolum) and inserted a new brain -- one synthetically created based very closely on the known genetic makeup of a second species of bacteria (Mycoplasma mycoides). The new organism then divided just as a normal cell would and followed the instructions of the new brain. Think micro-Avatar, except that the Avatar's body morphs into one designed by its new brain.
Experts and non-experts are debating the implications. Did Venter and his teamcreate new life? Yes and no. On the one hand, as Venter said, "This is the first self-replicating cell on the planet to have a computer for a parent." On the other hand, his team didn't create the organism from scratch. They used the body (minus the brain) of an existing species.
One can imagine all sorts of wonderful possible uses for this technology. Organisms could be programmed to make stuff -- for example, to create eco-friendly bio-fuels that reduce or even eliminate our dependence on eco-destructive fuels. Exxon expects to invest more than $600 million dollars to work with Synthetic Genomics Inc. -- the company co-founded by Venter -- to develop algae that can turn sunlight and carbon dioxide into energy. Bacteria could be designed and programmed to produce antiviral vaccines more rapidly than with our current method, which took almost six months to make last year's H1N1 vaccine. And medical researchers might be able to develop new treatments by using this technology to study disease. Imagine tinkering with the genes of a nerve cell from a patient with Alzheimer's to try to make the cell normal.
Ah, tinkering with genes. That gives a lot of people the heebie jeebies. Are we smart enough to fiddle around with genomes? What will be the unintended consequences? Will we accidentally -- or intentionally -- create some new kind of bug that will wreak havoc? Will bioterrorists get hold of this technology? Once scientists become nimble at synthesizing the human genome -- about 6,000 times larger than that of Mycoplasma mycoides -- will they use that technology wisely? Who decides how and when the technology should be employed? And how can those decisions be enforced?
Venter is keenly aware of the potential for harm and told me last week that he has been working with experts, ethicists, and the government to help develop ethical and regulatory standards. The last paragraph of the May 20th Science article reporting the breakthrough states, "We have been driving the ethical discussion concerning synthetic life from the earliest stages of this work. As synthetic genomic applications expand, we anticipate that this work will continue to raise philosophical issues that have broad societal and ethical implications. We encourage the continued discourse."
I hope that the continued discourse includes the patent issues surrounding genetic blueprints -- either dreamed up or based on a pre-existing organism. Strategist David Bollier has written extensively on the issue of the loss of "the commons" -- entities that humanity has shared over the centuries such as the spice tumeric, neem seeds and DNA that have been claimed as private property by corporations." Twenty percent of all human genes have already been patented. Though a federal court in New York recently ruled that genes may not be patented, Myriad Corporation had already patented DNA related to human genes that cause breast and ovarian cancer, thus in effect cornering the market for BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 testing for those diseases.
Here's my take. This is an absolutely stunning milestone in a decades-old incremental path towards trying to understand what makes us -- and other living creatures -- tick. Nobody knows where it will all lead. You can bet your bottom dollar that not all of it will be good but that's been true of just about every human advance. My vote is for an open discussion of the issues by people from all walks of life -- especially people with no financial interest in the outcome of the discussion. If we're going to make the right choices, we need common sense and sound ethics as much as we need scientific brilliance.
For more on this groundbreaking discovery, watch the Science Channel's "Creating Synthetic Life" show on Thursday, June 3rd starting at 8 p.m. ET/PT. The hour-long episode will be followed with a "question and answer" segment hosted by Paula Zahn at 9 p.m.ET/PT. And, if you miss the 8 p.m. show you can catch it again at 10 p.m. ET/PT.