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Synthetic Life or Cellular Machine?

By Michael Cook

The creation of synthetic bacteria will increase the speed with which new organisms can be generated, and reduce the value of animal life to mere chemical devices.

It was described as a scientific earthquake, but Craig Venter was just a fraction more modest in summing up his team’s biotechnology feat in May. His synthetic bacterium was, he said, “the first self-replicating species we’ve had on the planet whose parent is a computer”.

It certainly was an impressive technology. As they reported in Science, researchers from the J. Craig Venter Institute painstakingly assembled the genome of one species of bacterium and inserted it into another cell. The constructed cell began to function, dividing and growing like a natural cell.

Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0, as Venter has dubbed the synthetic organism, is another step toward the creation of off-the-shelf life-forms. Now that his scientists can “routinely write the software of life” he hopes to create new biological products for synthesising fuels, discovering new vaccines and medicines and so on. Commercially, synthetic biology could be the next big thing after IT and the internet.

The company’s ultimate goal is to create a stripped-down cellular chassis with just enough biological apparatus for independent life. Non-essential DNA regions from the synthetic genome will be whittled away until it is as concise as possible to sustain life. The result will be “a new vision of cells as understandable machines comprised of biological parts of known function”.

Some bioethicists interpreted this ambitious vision as a “God is dead” moment. The best-known bioethicist in the US, Arthur Caplan, ranked it with Darwin and Copernicus. “Venter’s achievement would seem to extinguish the argument that life requires a special force or power to exist,” he said. “In my view, this makes it one of the most important scientific achievements in the history of mankind.”

Really? A survey of the media suggested that more non-scientists than scientists were popping champagne corks. The closer to the lab bench, the more sceptical the comments. Although Venter is an accomplished scientist who shared line honours for the first human genome sequence, his colleagues describe him as a shrewd self-publicist who likes to frame solid achievements as historic breakthroughs. This time, one of his stunts was to insert “watermarks” into the genome with the names of team members, favourite quotations and a URL coded in the DNA.

According to many biologists it was not a major scientific advance. Harvard’s George Church told Nature: “The semi-synthetic mycobacterium is not changed from the wild state in any fundamental sense. Printing out a copy of an ancient text isn’t the same as understanding the language.”

Martin Fussenegger of ETH Zurich in Switzerland said: “Since appearing on the planet, mankind has rarely created something new. Instead, people help themselves to materials that are already present, and produce increasingly complex devices. This latest technology will simply increase the speed with which new organisms can be generated.”

What about the ethical implications? Venter knows that his ambitious plans would be controversial, and he has been preparing a soft landing for his high-flying projects for years. A report – which he supported – came last year from The Hastings Center in New York. It envisaged two types of potential harms emerging from synthetic biology.

First are the physical harms of bioerror and bioterror. New bugs might escape from laboratories and destroy ecologies. Security experts fear that terrorists could create microbes to spread lethal diseases. But in a sense these risks are easily handled because there is abundant experience of how to fireproof and regulate dangerous technologies.

Venter’s company says that safeguards are already in place. The microorganisms will be engineered so that they cannot live outside the lab or other production environments. If they happen to escape, “suicide genes” will be activated.

Still, there is bound to be a fierce debate over whether government regulation is needed or whether just a voluntary synthetic biology code of ethics will suffice.

Less easy to deal with will be the non-physical harms – the fears of Frankenstein technologies, deranging the natural order and scientists “playing God”. There are scientists and credulous bioethicists who dismiss such concerns as atavistic religious prejudice or irrational hysteria but The Hastings Center disagreed: “Many critics concerned about this second class of non-physical harms are rational and profess no religion at all”.

In fact, two German bioethicists pointed out a couple of years ago in Nature Biotechnology that if we begin to create lower forms of life and to think of them as mere building blocks or “artifacts” then we “may in the (very) long run lead to a weakening of society’s respect for higher forms of life”. There is a serious danger that our hard-won respect for animal life and even human life would eventually be undermined.

Reactions like Caplan’s suggest that some scientists and bioethicists do think that the construction of an artificial genome has confirmed that all life forms, not just Mycoplasma mycoides, are only “complex chemical devices”. Venter’s announcement may or may not be the opening salvo of a scientific revolution.

It certainly opens a new chapter in the drama of whether man is the master or the servant of technology.

Michael Cook is editor of the bioethics newsletter BioEdge.