THE BLOG
05/26/2010 04:58 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Wind, Meet Whirlwind

There is much confusion in the media about the remarkable Craig Venter achievement of inserting laboratory-made DNA into a bacterial cell and telling it to go forth and multiply, which it did. There's all sorts of nonsense on one hand about how if Craig could intelligently design life, so could god, and on the other that if Craig could create life, it proved god didn't. Also much nonsense about small bacteria growing into large Frankenstein monsters and grabbing nubile women off the Empire State building. On the other hand, I'm afraid, some misunderstanding from the good guys about how there was absolutely nothing to worry about here, just a tabloid beat up, what could possibly go wrong with new life forms artificially created in a commercial laboratory? And on yet another hand (it's a many-handed monster), much nonsense about how a Brave New World was about to dawn where instead of waiting for robots created by Japanese electronic firms we could grow them in a test tube to do whatever humans wanted them to, up to and including removing all the oil from the Gulf, ending world hunger, and stopping global warming. What are we to believe?

The truth is somewhere in the middle of all that primordial soup. The achievement has nothing to do with the origin of life (creating life now is considerably different to the origins of life 4 billion years ago), nor is it relevant to intelligent design (but nor is anything else). It has some relevance to how we view life -- life is just a bunch of chemical reactions, but we knew that already. And really, a wonderful new world isn't coming (at least from this cause) -- those claims are as baseless as the similar ones for nuclear power and GM organisms and geoengineering and prescribed burning of forests. And no, a disastrous new world isn't coming (at least from this cause), the Empire State building is safe from mutant monsters for a little longer.

But nor is everything as rosy as some of the all-knowledge-is-good, science-can-do-no-wrong, yaysayers for every scientific breakthrough. Trouble is, Craig Venter isn't Charles Darwin. Organisms in nature have genes, and combinations of genes, honed into fitness by the white hot heat of natural selection. What is more, we forget, sometimes, what Alfred Wallace knew, that selection takes place not one species at a time in a kind of natural test tube -- too hot, too cold, ah just right -- but within ecosystems. Within enormously complex sets of organisms that have to inter-relate just so or the whole house of straw will come tumbling down, each species being vital for the whole structure.

We can't predict how an individual organism will fit into an ecosystem, how it will affect the running of that complicated machinery. We do know, from examples all over the world, that introducing species into new habitats in which they did not evolve in is a process assured of disaster. Australia is rife with examples -- rabbits, foxes, rats, mice, cane toads, starlings, sparrows, mynahs, carp, thistles, serrated tussock, each bringing its set of disastrous consequences -- but every continent has seen similar misguided or accidental introductions. These introduced species bring no natural predators or diseases, and other species have not evolved into niches that allow for their presence.

So the idea that an invented species, alien to all environments, can be casually introduced in large numbers to, say, clean up an oil spill, or produce oil, without any unintended consequences, flies in the face of hundreds of years of experiments. Furthermore, once released, whatever is said in advance about the organism being designed for only one purpose and being unable to thrive in the wild, doesn't carry any guarantees with it. Much the same was said of the cane toad. Once species are released from test tubes they will rapidly adapt to the circumstances in which they find themselves, and it would be a brave geneticist who could predict what the end point of that process will be. Cleaning up a massive oil leak may turn out to be a doddle compared to putting genetics back in a bottle, getting rid of billions of organisms infesting a Gulf.

And there is still more to set the mind worrying. We know from the initial careless releases of genetically modified organisms that genes don't stay neatly within their skins. Genes can leak out into related organisms. An obvious example is inserting genes for herbicide resistance into a crop, only to find that the gene can be picked up by weed species which, as a consequence, can no longer be killed with herbicide. Whatever chunks of DNA are carefully inserted into a bacterium to do some job apparently important for mankind may well leak out into other organisms who are not mankind's friends. A similar process in geopolitics is called blowback, where funding the Taliban to beat the Russians results, twenty years later, results in terrorists targeting you.

Look, I think this is a great achievement. Along with cloning and stem cell work, creating artificial organisms is going to lead to huge advances in our understanding of how genes work in the body. But the hubris of thinking we know enough about ecology to start improving on natural selection has already got us into trouble, and could get us into a lot more.

Hubris on The Watermelon Blog? You be the judge.