It lives!

On May 20, scientist Craig Venter announced that he and his team at the J. Craig Venter Institute have created the first self-replicating, synthetic bacterial cell. They used the genetic code from one type of bacterium, made their own copy of the code, and transplanted the copy into a cell of a different bacterium, where it thrived.

Some scientists, including Venter himself, hail the work as a major step forward in synthetic biology. This breakthrough could lead, eventually, to cures for dangerous diseases and fixes for global problems. We may be one step closer to developing bacteria that eat things we don’t want, like CO2 or spilled oil, and excrete things we do want, like clean bio-fuel.

But what are the ethical implications of this breakthrough?

Ethicists question whether or not we should tamper with the building blocks of life. Environmentalists fear the technology could lead to the development of dangerous bio-weapons. Dr. David King of Human Genetics Alert told the UK’s Daily Mail, “What is really dangerous is these scientists’ ambitions for total and unrestrained control over nature, which many people describe as ‘playing God.’”

Andrew Maynard, of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, agrees that we must develop policies, ethics, and research strategies, but he points out that the science is in its infancy. He cautions against peering too far into the future and overlooking more immediate safety issues.

“What we need,” Maynard writes, “is science-based dialogue on potential emergent risks that present new challenges, the plausibility of these risks leading to adverse impacts, and the magnitude and nature of the possible harm that might result. Only then will we be able to develop a science-based foundation on which to build a safe technology.”

But how do we balance scientific innovation with ethical restraint? How do we protect ourselves against the potential dangers of our emerging technologies?

Immediately after the Venter Institute announced the news, President Obama ordered the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to review synthetic biology. They’ll present their findings in six months.

* For a related lesson plan for teens, check out Following the Footsteps of Einstein from our free Lesson Plan Bank.

* For more on the subject, check out these articles in the New York Times and Times Online.

5 thoughts on “It lives!”

  1. They did not create life. They took an already existing life form, modified it and placed it in another life form. That’s not “creating”, that’s altering.

  2. Since recorded history, religions have smothered and supressed scientific endeavors until recently believng that scientists are “playing god” rather than worshiping god. Now, new discoveries through science have given us medicine, cars, space travel, and cookware to make our lives easier. We see the benefits of science every day. Unfortunately, it has also given us new ways to kill each other, new war machines, biological weapons, chemical weapons, and the Abomb. The ethical questions about a new discovery isn’t about whether scientists can or should develop new things to make our lives better, the question is whether or not someone with evil, sinister designs will use that discovery for something other than what it was designed for, like blowing people up. There is a constant battle between people worshiping and “playing” god which will, I think, never end. However, as long as there are people in the world who use an intended beneficial discovery for malicious purposes, there will always be ethical studies as to whether or not scientists should look for better ways to improve our lives. Perhaps we should say “…scientists should never make new discoveries because someone will misuse it.” I think, instead, we should be more systematic and cautious as to who uses and misuses new disicoveries rather than banishing them forever.

  3. Agreed! In the mad rush to circumvent the real Creator, the term “creating” gets very loosely applied.

  4. How sad to see an inflammatory headline that is not supported by fact.
    Scientists did not create life. Geneticist Steve Jones said…
    “The idea that this is “playing God” is just daft. What he has done in genetic terms would be analogous to taking an Apple Mac programme and making it work on a PC — and then saying you have created a computer. It’s not trivial, but it is utterly absurd the claims that are being made about it.”

  5. I agree with those that say they did not create life, they altered it. This is a very slippery slope that I do not think man is prepared to navigate.

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