THE IMPLICATIONS OF SYNTHETIC LIFE

THE IMPLICATIONS OF SYNTHETIC LIFE
By Jim Taylor

No sooner had I completed last Sunday's column, on attempts to extend life
by deep-freezing near-death cells, when Craig Venter announced that he had
created the first synthetic cells. From the end of life, to the origins of
life. Venter, of course, is the man whose laboratory won the race to
decipher the human genetic code in June 2000. Now Venter has won another
race. He claims to have created synthetic life. Well, almost. He didn't
quite throw together a witches' brew of chemicals from which life
spontaneously emerged. Rather, he started with something that already had
life -- a Mycoplasma capricolum bacteria cell -- stripped out its DNA, and
replaced its DNA with new DNA that he and his colleagues had designed in
their computers. The donor cell -- or what was left of it -- recognized this
new stuff as legitimate DNA, and started replicating, just as it would have
before it lost its own DNA.

A LANDMARK IN BIOLOGY DNA, short for deoxyribonucleic acid, is the blueprint
for life. Its unique double-helix of paired chemical bonds governs every
cell of every organism that has ever lived. As a rough analogy, DNA is like
the operating system for my computer. In effect, Venter simply replaced the
bacteria's Windows operating system with a Linux system. Venter himself
implied that analogy. "We were ecstatic when the cells 'booted up'..."
Venter told the Guardian newspaper. "It's a living species now, part of our
planet's inventory of life." Geneticist Stephen Scherer of Toronto's
Hospital for Sick Children, hailed Venter's synthetic DNA, as "a landmark in
biology having a similar impact to when Dolly the cloned sheep was
introduced to the world." "This is a moment in evolution," gushed the
Guardian's Ken MacLoed, "as radical an invention as agriculture or
industry." Venter certainly views his achievement as a great breakthrough.
It will, he suggested, enable humans to custom-design organisms that will
consume greenhouse gases, create fuels, manufacture vaccines.... He didn't
quite suggest they could produce fully marinated T-bone steaks without the
inconvenience of raising cattle. But as one journalist noted, somewhat
acidly, "Dr Venter rarely undersells his work: every advance he makes is a
breakthrough."

OPENING PANDORA'S BOX But as you might expect, others see mainly risks and
hazards. Julian Savulescu, professor of practical ethics at Oxford
University, said: "Venter ... is not merely modifying life by genetic
engineering. He is going towards the role of a god: creating artificial life
that could never have existed naturally." The bleakest assessment I've seen
came from Devinder Sharma of India. Venter, he suggested, "is trying to play
God. In fact, God now has competition. "The day is not far away when we will
have a parallel form of life, another living race amidst us. "The day is
also not far away when biological warfare will acquire ... more deadly and
sinister forms that synthetic life can create." Sharma called for government
regulation: "We cannot allow science to be left to corporate board rooms."
So did L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican's official newspaper. The emerging
science, it said, "needs to have rules, like anything that touches the heart
of life." And Margaret Somerville, founding director of Montreal's McGill
Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law, described molecular biology as "the
power to alter 4.8 billion years of evolution.... We desperately need to
govern what's okay to do with this and what's not okay."

FREE OF ANCESTORS I don't hold out much hope for legislation. Law always
lags behind reality. During the millennia when change moved at glacial
speeds, legislation -- even if it took a generation to formulate -- still
had time to influence the unfolding of a new technology. Not any more.
Canada's copyright law, for example, became law in 1985 -- when Internet
communication was still largely undreamed of. Even frequent amendments leave
it constantly playing catch-up. Legislators cannot write laws for
technologies that they have not yet imagined. By the time someone like
Venter devises a new technology, it's already too late to confine it. "This
is the first self-replicating species that we've had on the planet whose
parent is a computer," Venter bragged to reporters -- the first organisms
since life emerged billions of years ago that have no living ancestor. Aside
from practical implications, I wonder how the creation of synthetic life
will affect the way we think about ourselves. All religions have a creation
story. The details differ, but all presume a single, one-time, creation. How
will religions deal with parallel creations? Western Christianity has, by
and large, defined human nature as sinful. Augustine of Hippo theorized that
Adam and Eve's original sin was transmitted genetically to all generations.
Since sinful beings could not save each other, salvation must come through
one considered sinless. If synthetic bacteria have no ancestors, are they
therefore sinless? Craig Venter himself seems to recognize some broader
implications of his work, "both scientifically and philosophically. It
certainly changed my views of the definition of life and how life works," he
said.

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