Friday, May 21, 2010

It's life...but not as we know it

The headline in this morning's Irish Examiner is just the start of it: "Scientists create 'Frankenstein' cell", it screams. "An American biologist has stepped into the shoes of Baron Frankenstein by breathing life into a bacterium using genes assembled in the laboratory". And the Irish Examiner calls itself a serious newspaper!

The story is a fascinating one. As we told you back in January, 2010 was the year when Craig Venter promised he'd create artificial life. And he's done it.

The research, published in Science, outlines how they got the first ever microbe to survive and proliferate based on purely human-synthesized genetic information. Scientific American has a very useful summary of the latest developments here.

The research is groundbreaking and could have implications for renewable energy systems, the production of vaccines and other areas of research. Indeed, a bacterium that can digest oil spills would be very useful at the moment.

Arthur Caplan, Director of the Centre for Bioethics at University of Pennsylvania notes that, "Venter and his group were careful to use tiny molecular changes to "watermark," or stamp their creation—an identification requirement that any scientist or company ought be required to utilize when using the techniques of synthetic biology". This would prevent "bad guys making nasty bugs".

"value of life is not imperiled or cheapened by coming to understand how it works" - CaplanSpeaking of the ethical implications for this research, Caplan ponders: "is the dignity of life imperiled by showing that human beings can create a novel living thing?  I think not. There are those who are enthralled by the idea that life is a riddle beyond solution. However, the value of life is not imperiled or cheapened by coming to understand how it works." All in all, a much more nuanced and intelligent assessment of the science than the Irish Examiner could muster.


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