The media are having a heyday with the news that researchers have created the first synthetic cell. Is this the beginning of man-made life?
The Economist seems to think it likely.
It will be a while, yet, before lifeforms are routinely designed on a laptop. But this will come. The past decade, since the completion of the Human Genome Project, has seen two related developments that make it almost inevitable. One is an extraordinary rise in the speed, and fall in the cost, of analysing the DNA sequences that encode the natural “software” of life. What once took years and cost millions now takes days and costs thousands. Databases are filling up with the genomes of everything from the tiniest virus to the tallest tree.
These genomes are the raw material for synthetic biology. First, they will provide an understanding of how biology works right down to the atomic level. That can then be modelled in human-designed software so that synthetic biologists will be able to assemble new constellations of genes with a reasonable presumption that they will work in a predictable way. Second, the genome databases are a warehouse that can be raided for whatever part a synthetic biologist requires.
The other development is faster and cheaper DNA synthesis. This has lagged a few years behind DNA analysis, but seems to be heading in the same direction. That means it will soon be possible for almost anybody to make DNA to order, and dabble in synthetic biology.
That is good, up to a point. Innovation works best when it is a game that anyone can play. The more ideas there are, the better the chance some will prosper. Unfortunately and inevitably, some of those ideas will be malicious. And the problem with malicious biological inventions—unlike, say, guns and explosives—is that once released, they can breed by themselves.
Which is only one reason and a secondary one the Vatican is urging scientists to proceed with caution.
“If it is used toward the good, to treat pathologies, we can only be positive” in our assessment, Monsignor Rino Fisichella, the Vatican’s top bioethics official, told state-run TV. “If it turns out not to be … useful to respect the dignity of the person, then our judgment would change.”
“We look at science with great interest. But we think above all about the meaning that must be given to life,” said Fisichella, who heads Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life. “We can only reach the conclusion that we need God, the origin of life.”
The Economist says ‘vigilance will be needed.’ The Vatican emphasizes why.
A top Italian cardinal, Angelo Bagnasco, said the invention is “further sign of intelligence, God’s gift to understand creation and be able to better govern it,” according to Apcom and ANSA news agencies.
“On the other hand, intelligence can never be without responsibility,” said Bagnasco, the head of the Italian bishops’ conference. “Any form of intelligence and any scientific acquisition … must always be measured against the ethical dimension, which has at its heart the true dignity of every person.”