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Science View: Creating artificial life

Clare Spencer | 14:45 UK time, Friday, 21 May 2010

Scientists in the US have succeeded in developing the first living cell to be controlled entirely by synthetic DNA. Experts and commentators look at the development.

Arthur Caplan explains in Scientific American why the scientists wanted to create artificial life:

"Why did they do it? Well, in part to resolve the age-old debate that life is not reducible to the sum of any parts. But, they also know that the techniques of gene synthesis involved in this remarkable achievement hold out much promise for humankind.

"Synthetic biology should permit scientists to make microbes that solve many of our most pressing problems. Building bacteria that digest oil and chemical pollution from leaks and spills or eat cholesterol and other dangerous substances that accumulate in our bodies is all to the good."

Ewen Callaway describes in the New Scientist what can be done with a synthetic cell:

"Venter's work was a proof of principle, but future synthetic cells could be used to create drugs, biofuels and other useful products. He is collaborating with Exxon Mobil to produce biofuels from algae and with Novartis to create vaccines.
'As soon as next year, the flu vaccine you get could be made synthetically,' Venter says.
Ellington also sees synthetic bacteria as having potential as a scientific tool. It would be interesting, he says, to create bacteria that produce a new amino acid - the chemical units that make up proteins - and see how these bacteria evolve, compared with bacteria that produce the usual suite of amino acids. 'We can ask these questions about cyborg cells in ways we never could before.'"

Alice Park illustrates in Time why it is a significant scientific development:

"The paper is the final and most critical step toward realizing what began as scientific curiosity among the scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute back in the early 1990s, when many of the same researchers first succeeded in sequencing the entire genome of a self-replicating organism, the bacterium Haemophilus influenzae. That led to the generation of the complete sequencing of the smallest known genome, at 582,000 base pairs, belonging to another bacterium, Mycoplasma genitalium. Such smallness was intriguing because it led Venter to the philosophical question that inspired the current research - what was the minimum genome required to create life in the lab?"

In the Telegraph Richard Alleyne outlines why he thinks the study is controversial:

"While a major technological leap forward the life form is still incredibly simple in natural terms. Its DNA is made up of 485 genes, each strand of which is made up of one million base pairs, the equivalent of rungs on a ladder.

"A human genome has 20,000 genes and three billion base pairs.
Nevertheless it is the beginning of the process that could lead to creation of much more complicated species, and into a world of artificial animals and people only envisaged in films such as Ridley Scott's Blade Runner and Steven Spielberg's Artificial Intelligence."

In the Huffington Post David Ropeik says the ethical debate uncovers "our fear of Frankenstein":

"The ability to construct DNA to our specifications and insert it into living reproducing cells, to create new forms of life, has almost unimaginable promise; to eliminate hunger, clean the environment, cure disease. Far less of that promise will be realized if the people doing this work fail to recognize and address our worries about what they are doing. Otherwise they may learn how to create their Adam [the name Mary Shelley reportedly unofficially called Frankenstein's monster], only to find that, out of fear, we want to chase down what they have done and kill it."

The director of the Centre for Practical Ethics at Oxford University Professor Julian Savulescu told the BBC World Service that this could win a Nobel prize:

"This is an industrial bio-revolution that has enormous benefits - to deal with pollution, provide new energy sources, provide new treatments for cancer...

"Also the risks are unimaginably huge. You can also engineer novel agents that humans have never encountered. You could release these accidentally, or the military or terrorist groups could create the most powerful bio-weapons imaginable.

"So the challenge is going to be to eat the apple without choking on the worm inside it.
It could be the greatest revolution that we face and it could also be our destruction."

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