Scanning electron micrographs of M. mycoides JCVI-syn1.It was described as a scientific
earthquake, but Craig
Venter
was just a fraction more modest in summing up his team’s biotechnology
milestone in May. His synthetic bacterium was, he said,
merely “the first self-replicating species we’ve had on the planet whose parent is a
computer.”

It certainly was an impressive feat of
technology. As they reported in the journal 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 life-forms
tailor-made for industry. Now that his scientists can “routinely write the
software of life”, he hopes to create new biological products for synthesising
fuels, cleaning water, discovering new vaccines and medicines and so on. Venter
hopes that synthetic microorganisms will be able to generate biofuels from
algae, for instance, enabling us to kick our addiction to fossil fuels. Commercially,
synthetic biology could be the next big thing after IT and the internet.

The company’s next goal is to create a
stripped-down cellular chassis with just enough biological machinery 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”.

New visions always appeal to the fringe.
Remember the Raelians? They are over the moon about Venter’s feat. This weird sect, which believes that extraterrestrial
scientists created all life on Earth invested heavily in cloning a human being
and failed. Their
spokesman declared
that “The creation of the first cell controlled by
a synthetic genome… shows the entire world that life isn’t the mysterious gift
of a hypothetical god.”

This was bizarre, but even some respected
bioethicists also interpreted Venter’s ambitious vision as a “God is dead”
moment. Julian
Savulescu
, of Oxford University, declared breathlessly that Venter
was becoming “a god: creating artificial life that could never have existed
naturally, creating life from the ground up using basic building blocks.” And
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 gives the impression that more
non-scientists than scientists have been 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 and brilliant entrepreneur
who likes to frame solid achievements as historic breakthroughs. This time, one
of his stunts for the media was to insert “watermarks” into the genome, with
the names of team members, favourite quotations and a URL coded in the DNA.

So it was a major technological feat,
but not an epochal scientific advance, according to many biologists. Harvard’s
George Church told Nature
that “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.” And Martin Fussenegger, of ETH Zurich, in
Switzerland, said that “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.”

An
Irish geneticist, David McConnell, of Trinity College Dublin was scathing.
Venter’s methods were complex, but not very interesting. “It is a scientific
folly. There are no new ethical issues… In scientific terms we have learned
nothing new.”

What about those ethical issues? Venter knew
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. Environmentalists are worried that 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 which stem from his boast that he is creating life — the
fears of Frankenstein technologies, deranging the natural order and scientists “playing
God”. There are scientists and 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 the journal 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 Savulescu’s and Caplan’s, to
say nothing of the Raelians, suggest that some
scientists and bioethicists
do think that the construction of an artificial
genome is epochal — precisely because it confirms their belief that that all life forms, not just Mycoplasma mycoides, are
only “complex chemical devices” and that there is no essential difference
between inanimate and animate beings. 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 MercatorNet.

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet.