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.