After decades, the dream of scientists (and of a few mad scientists) has come true: U.S. researchers have announced the successful creation of artificial life. Led by Dr. Craig Venter, a visionary and billionaire, the research team succeeded in creating "life from scratch." He calls the new life "Synthia."
In the science of biology, the ramifications of creating artificial life are as potentially world-shaking as the invention of warp drive to astrophysicists or the discovery of a living dinosaur to paleontologists.
The implications of synthetic life forms are astounding. The reality of it will eventually impact law, the definition of what is and is not considered valid life, raise thorny ethical issues and probably create a heated debate over whether more advanced life forms can be patented or not.
For now, the first synthetically created organism is more of a novelty than a benefit or danger. Yet in the decades ahead that will surely change.
The future applications of synthetic life are diverse. Some potential applications are ominous.
'Designer life' will have an impact on many human endeavors, several obvious ones are chemistry, materials science, pharmaceuticals, engineering, deep-sea exploration, water processing, energy production, agriculture and animal husbandry. Military applications also exist.
The announcement of the first successful attempt at creating synthetic life has been published in the journal Science. The article explains how a research team—led by Dr Craig Venter of the J. Craig Venter Institute in Maryland and California—created synthetic DNA and placed it into a host cell. The artificial DNA acted as a genetic software program dictating instructions that the newly created bacterium followed.
A 'synthesis machine'
Specifically, the team copied an existing genome harvested from a bacterium. Using a "synthesis machine" they synthetically replicated its genetic code and then placed the synthetic code into a cell without DNA. Thus, the team succeeded in creating an entirely new organism.
During an interview with BBC News, Venter stated: "We've now been able to take our synthetic chromosome and transplant it into a recipient cell - a different organism. As soon as this new software goes into the cell, the cell reads [the code] and [then] converts into the species specified in that genetic code."
After creating the synthetic cell, the new bacteria began to reproduce itself over one billion times. All the copies were governed by the dictates of the synthesized DNA.
"This is the first time any synthetic DNA has been in complete control of a cell," said Venter.
The scientist is effusive over all the potential benefits synthetic life promises. He and his team have already begun work with the pharmaceutical and fuel industry to create conceptual designs for synthetic bacteria that have applications for new fuels and vaccines.
"I think they're going to potentially create a new industrial revolution," Venter predicted. "This is the first time any synthetic DNA has been in complete control of a cell."
He isn't God
Critics of synthetic life worry about mishaps or intentionial weapons applications. Ethicists accuse Venter of " ... open[ing] the most profound door in humanity's history." They believe unparalled risks are behind that door.
Dr. Helen Wallace, a spokesperson for Genewatch, UK—an organization that monitors emerging biotech advancements and their applications—stated flatly that artificial life could be dangerous. She warned, "If you release new organisms into the environment, you can do more harm than good ... We don't know how these organisms will behave in the environment."
Wallace added, "He [Venter] isn't God."
At the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford, Professor Julian Savulescu also cautioned that " ... the risks are also unparalleled. We need new standards of safety evaluation for this kind of radical research and protections from military or terrorist misuse and abuse. "
But as with any other new technology, it's virtually impossible to get the genie back into the bottle. No doubt the ethical debate arising about the reality of artifical life will continue to escalate for some time.
Savulescu is worried though. "These could be used in the future to make the most powerful bioweapons imaginable," he said with a frown.