A team of scientists led by potential antichrist Craig Venter reports that they’ve successfully created a living cell out of lab synthesised DNA. Start stocking up on your torches and pitchforks, folks. It’s alive!
Craig Venter has been fiddling with creating artificial life for quite some time. The founder of Celera Genomics, The Institute for Genomic Research and the J. Craig Venter Institute, he’s been working since 1995 to create synthetic biological organisms for environmental change.
In layman’s terms, he wants to create life. Not just any life, but the sort that we humans can control to our own ends. If that’s not the plot to a 70’s B-grade horror film, I don’t know what is.
The main difference between a science horror movie and Venter is that his research is not only real, but now it’s generated real success.
What do you tell a man like Venter years from now, when the world is in ashes and he wonders aloud what he’s done?
You tell him that he and his team succeeded in building a synthetic genome out of the chemical components of DNA – A, T, C and G – transferring them into a cell in order to control how it develops and multiplies.
You see, DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is what contains the instructions that tell our cells how to function. It’s what makes eyeball cells eyeball cells, liver cells liver cells, and giant, slobbering, flesh-hungry abomination cells…well, you get the point.
Over the past 15 years, Venter and his team struggled with and overcame obstacles placed in their way. Using bacteria cells to assemble the DNA helped them get around the issue of chemical synthesis techniques breaking down once the DNA letters introduced got into the thousands. Working with simple bacterial, he perfected the process of transferring large chunks of DNA between cells without breaking them.
And now Venter and his team have successfully created a copy of the bacteria Mycoplasma mycoides in a lab, from scratch.
Because we needed more bacteria. We can never get enough.
Members of the science community are quick to point out that this isn’t really artificial life. Says Jim Collins, a synthetic biologist at Boston University, “Its genome is a stitched together copy of the DNA of an organism that exists in nature.”
And that’s somehow better? Hmmm, where have we seen stitched together organisms before? Oh yeah!
Gregory Kaebnick, a scholar at bioethics think tank the Hasting centre, plays the voice of reason in this little science drama, bringing up two valid concerns.
First, what happens when it escapes and runs amok? Answer: We all die horribly, cursing Venter’s name.
Second, does this work cross the line where humans start playing God? Answer: We all die horribly, cursing Venter’s name.
“Up until now, organisms have come into being on their own as it were, they’ve evolved on their own.” But Kaebnick says Venter’s work says that may not longer be the case. “And for some that’s a troubling development.
And Venter’s response?
“We decided that writing new biological software and creating new species, we could create new species to what we want them to do, not what they evolved to do.”
SOMEBODY DO SOMETHING!
Right now Venter plans to use his hungry children new species to help develop new fuels and medicines at his company Synthetic Genomics.