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It's alive! Artificial DNA controls life

 
 
Reply Thu 20 May, 2010 12:28 pm
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What seemed to be an intractable riddle " and one with significant religious overtones " has been solved. A research team led by J. Craig Venter, Hamilton Smith, Clyde Hutchison, and Daniel Gibson at the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Md., has just announced in the journal Science that they have created new living bacteria from non-living parts.

The scientists have crafted what they’re calling a “synthetic cell” from a set of genes they decoded, artificially combined and then stuck into the cored-out remains of another bacterial cell.

The Venter team has been working for many years to create a synthetic bacterium. Having built a synthetic virus some years ago, they have now shown that they can take the next step.

A truly living thing
Some argued that making a virus was not a demonstration that life is reducible to its subsidiary parts. Viruses have to use bacteria to reproduce. No one can say that making a bacterium, a much more independent, complex, self-replicating critter, is not synthesizing a truly living thing.

Why did the Venter team do it? Well, it was in part to resolve that age-old debate about reducing life to the sum of its parts. They wanted to show it could be done. More important, however, is 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 can solve many of our most pressing problems. Building bacteria that secrete food edible by other tiny ocean creatures will provide us with more to eat as the now-endangered ocean food chain is rebuilt. There could be bacteria that digest oil from leaks and spills, or bacteria that consume cholesterol and other dangerous substances in our bodies. There could even be bacteria that attack other microbes that cause so much death and illness. All those are in the offing, and that is all to the good.

Oversight will be vital
That said, there is great need for more oversight of this hugely powerful technology. Bad guys making nasty bugs or scientists who are not very careful about where they make new microbes or where they release them could pose serious risks to our health and environment.

Venter and his group were careful to use tiny molecular changes to “watermark” or stamp their creation. Any scientist or company who uses the techniques of synthetic biology in the future ought to be required to use similar identifying markers. If an artificial life form escapes, it must be easy to identify in order to hold those who made it accountable.

The regulatory, social and legal challenges can be solved. It will take both national and international commitments to do so, but the risk of inaction is greater than the risks of moving forward given the tremendous benefits this technology promises.

The real fallout from the Venter group’s achievement is subtle but more powerful. The scientists are chipping away at the view that there is something unique and unknowable about life itself. From this day forward, we know that the right chemical messages, presented in the right order and put in the right chemical context, can produce life.

Some may find this discovery a bit deflating. Others may worry that a line has been crossed in creating a new living thing. I think that none of this is true.

The dignity of life has never rested in its mystery but in its remarkable diversity, complexity and ability to manifest itself in all manner of conditions and circumstances. Coming to understand how life works, even taking small steps toward creating it, crosses no line. It is up to us to put this knowledge to good use. If there is any mystery, it is whether we will succeed.

Arthur Caplan is director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania
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Type: Discussion • Score: 5 • Views: 3,485 • Replies: 20
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edgarblythe
 
  1  
Reply Thu 20 May, 2010 12:29 pm
The Martians were done in by bacteria. Are Earthlings next?
0 Replies
 
talk72000
 
  1  
Reply Thu 20 May, 2010 12:42 pm
@edgarblythe,
There is movie the Island of Dr. Moreau starring MarlonBrando who is scientist who starts a genetic program with the greatest of good intentions to improve and promote the welfare of humankind by enhancing human genes. However, his experiments go terribly wrong and he gets a lot of defective half humans and he is in effect their father. This experiment is conducted in an isolated South Seas island.
edgarblythe
 
  1  
Reply Thu 20 May, 2010 12:55 pm
@talk72000,
Based loosely on an HG Wells novel.
BumbleBeeBoogie
 
  1  
Reply Thu 20 May, 2010 01:08 pm
@edgarblythe,
Edgar, isn't it sad that H. G. Wells did not live to learn of this experiment that he predicted?

I hope they plan to experiment on fire ants to make them sweet and gentle instead of vicious.

BBB
edgarblythe
 
  1  
Reply Thu 20 May, 2010 01:13 pm
@BumbleBeeBoogie,
I bet they cross fire ants with Africanized honey bees to get them to sting themselves to death.
0 Replies
 
rosborne979
 
  1  
Reply Thu 20 May, 2010 01:17 pm
@edgarblythe,
And they did it just about a year after they said they would.

We speculated on this last year on this thread: http://able2know.org/topic/136015-1

I'm impressed. I wasn't sure they could do it this quickly.

And the little bacterium has already reproduced itself many times.
edgarblythe
 
  1  
Reply Thu 20 May, 2010 01:28 pm
@rosborne979,
I would have deferred to that thread, but didn't realize ...
rosborne979
 
  1  
Reply Thu 20 May, 2010 01:31 pm
@edgarblythe,
edgarblythe wrote:
I would have deferred to that thread, but didn't realize ...

No problem. Smile
0 Replies
 
Eorl
 
  1  
Reply Thu 20 May, 2010 03:51 pm
@edgarblythe,
Wow. This is huge. Hopefully the religious won't realize just how huge it is, they'll think it's just tweaking something god already made. If they do realize, there will be hell to pay.
edgarblythe
 
  1  
Reply Thu 20 May, 2010 04:00 pm
Thank the gods Neptune, Ptah and Wakentanka GW Bush ain't president.
0 Replies
 
Finn dAbuzz
 
  1  
Reply Thu 20 May, 2010 10:46 pm
@Eorl,
Eorl wrote:

Wow. This is huge. Hopefully the religious won't realize just how huge it is, they'll think it's just tweaking something god already made. If they do realize, there will be hell to pay.


I agree that this huge, but I'm not sure it's for the same reason you believe it to be so. Do you believe it somehow answers a fundamental question about existence that could rock the world?

How do you define "the religious?"

Belief in a divine creator is not undercut by this human achievement, and while "just tweaking" grossly underestimates it, it really is a case of humans working with what God has created.

I believe in God, and I also not only accept but marvel at the mechanism of evolution. This achievement doesn't call into question anything I believe about God, in fact it confirms much of it. And I don't think I'm all that unique in my beliefs.

I appreciate that there are people who also believe in God who do not accept the reality of evolution and may either deny the truth of this story or find it appalling but do you really expect them to react extremely, and how so? Rioting, burning books, jihad?

It seems to me that it is far more likely that an achievement like this will generate contraversy around potential unintended consequences, rather than any perceived affront to God.

It isn't "the religious" who are up in arms about genetically modified food-stuffs, or who want to rid the world of plastic.







Eorl
 
  1  
Reply Fri 21 May, 2010 07:41 am
@Finn dAbuzz,
Finn dAbuzz wrote:

Eorl wrote:

Wow. This is huge. Hopefully the religious won't realize just how huge it is, they'll think it's just tweaking something god already made. If they do realize, there will be hell to pay.


I agree that this huge, but I'm not sure it's for the same reason you believe it to be so. Do you believe it somehow answers a fundamental question about existence that could rock the world?



Nope. It probably should, but then if Darwin didn't do it this won't

Quote:

It seems to me that it is far more likely that an achievement like this will generate contraversy around potential unintended consequences, rather than any perceived affront to God.

It isn't "the religious" who are up in arms about genetically modified food-stuffs, or who want to rid the world of plastic.


I think we agree on why it's big, even the intended consequences will be seen as "an abomination" and they (and you) could well be right. I'd rate this alongside the day we successfully split the atom, and I'm not sure that was so great for everyone.

I used word "religious" as a very broad generalization, and I'm sure there will be plenty of resistance from those who self-identify as such.
0 Replies
 
rosborne979
 
  1  
Reply Tue 25 May, 2010 11:55 am
An interesting article: http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20627616.600-darwinian-spacecraft-engine-to-last-twice-as-long.html

Genetic Algorithms are being used to "evolve" new mechanical designs. It seems only a matter of time now before the same algorithms will be used to evolve artificial genetic designs.
0 Replies
 
edgarblythe
 
  1  
Reply Tue 25 May, 2010 11:58 am
Only shows to go, God ain't done with us, yet. Mr. Green
rosborne979
 
  1  
Reply Tue 25 May, 2010 07:28 pm
@edgarblythe,
edgarblythe wrote:
Only shows to go, God ain't done with us, yet. Mr. Green

Evolution ain't done with us either. Smile
Finn dAbuzz
 
  1  
Reply Thu 27 May, 2010 04:50 pm
@rosborne979,
rosborne979 wrote:

edgarblythe wrote:
Only shows to go, God ain't done with us, yet. Mr. Green

Evolution ain't done with us either. Smile



I disagree.

Barring an apocolyptic event, humanity has transcended evolution.
rosborne979
 
  1  
Reply Sat 29 May, 2010 05:33 pm
@Finn dAbuzz,
Finn dAbuzz wrote:

rosborne979 wrote:

edgarblythe wrote:
Only shows to go, God ain't done with us, yet. Mr. Green

Evolution ain't done with us either. Smile


I disagree.

Barring an apocolyptic event, humanity has transcended evolution.

I take a broad view of evolution, in which our manipulation of our own DNA, and our creation of new forms of life both biological and cybernetic are aspects of evolution, working through us.
0 Replies
 
maporsche
 
  1  
Reply Sat 29 May, 2010 07:15 pm
@Finn dAbuzz,
I think we've transcended natural selection, at least in the developed world. But I think evolution could still occur.
0 Replies
 
edgarblythe
 
  2  
Reply Sat 29 May, 2010 07:48 pm
Ask the question again in half a million years or so.
0 Replies
 
 

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