An American scientist is doing what no other man has done before: Create artificial life.
Celebrity US scientist Craig Venter has announced that he has built a synthetic chromosome using chemicals made in a laboratory — the first ever artificial life form which promises new energy sources to combat global warming and also cures for today’s killer diseases.
Craig Venter explains his work at a forum.
In a development that has triggered unease and excitement in equal measure, Venter and his team of scientists in the US took the whole genetic makeup – or genome – of a bacterial cell and transplanted it into a closely related species.
This then began to grow and multiply in the lab, turning into the first species in the process.
The team that carried out the first “species transplant” says it plans within months to do the same thing with a synthetic genome made from scratch in the laboratory.
Moralists and other critics have immediately set their big mouths on overdrive as they pounced on Venter “for trying to play God.” One of them, Arthur L. Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, said Venter’s creation “has revolutionary implications for how we see ourselves. When we can synthesize life, it makes the notion of a living being less special.”
Huh? Venter is showing that human beings are less special? My goodness, the reverse is true! Venter is asserting mankind’s special place in the universe.
“And there’s a perception that synthetic biologists may be “manipulating nature without knowing where they are going.” Caplan said. “There are arrogant scientists, and our friend Venter may be one of them.”
Of course, what’s more fearsome are arrogant ethicists and moralists who impose their distorted views on humanity.
The more open-minded, and therefore, more credible observers, see the forthcoming breakthrough as another assertion of man’s genius, of the human capacity to do things beyond ordinary people’s wildest dreams. If there’s a will, there’s a way.
Venter is showing the world how to think and do things outside the box.
The single-cell organism he is making is piloted by a chromosome with just 381 genes, the limit necessary to sustain the life of the bacteria so it can feed and reproduce.
The new bacteria is not entirely artificial because it is composed of building blocks from already existing organisms. The idea is to make it into a universal tool for biologists by according it the genes necessary to accomplish certain tasks.
Venter said his creation would be “a very important philosophical step in the history of our species.”
Pat Mooney, director of the Canadian bioethics organization ETC Group, said Venter was actually creating “a chassis on which you could build almost anything. It could be a contribution to humanity such as new drugs or a huge threat to humanity such as bio-weapons.”
The chromosome which Venter and his team has created is known as Mycoplasma laboratorium and, in the final step of the process, will be transplanted into a living cell where it should “take control,” effectively becoming a new life form.
Venter’s company, Synthetic Genomics Inc., has filed controversial patents on synthetic bugs, which could make fuels such as ethanol or hydrogen, providing lucrative opportunities. The company announced a deal June 13 with energy giant BPPLC to find and modify naturally occurring microbes that can turn coal or oil below the earth’s surface into cleaner fuel. Microorganisms “have the potential to provide all the transportation fuel we need in the U.S.,” said Venter.
His research is merely the tip if the iceberg. Future possibilities include bugs that clean up pollution or flash when they detect explosives. Venter foresees creating organisms worth billions or trillions of dollars.
Venter isn’t surprised by the attacks on his work. “Patents are a hot word, and people are afraid of synthetic organisms.” he said. He has won kudos for convening panels of bioethicists, religious leaders, and biowarfare experts to study the issues. They’ve concluded the research shouldn’t be stopped — though synthetic organisms must be controlled and contained. Environmental groups should be “ecstatic about what we are doing, since we provide one of the clear alternatives to burning oil and coal.” Venter said.
The project, which Venter has been working on for five years along with a team of researchers, has been partially financed by the US Department of Energy in the hopes that it could lead to the creation of a new environmentally friendly fuel.
“We are going from reading our genetic code to the ability to write it. That gives us the hypothetical ability to do things never contemplated before,” Venter said.
Hooray, Mr. Venter! May you serve as an inspiration to humanity, showing us all that the mind of man has no limits — that we can do whatever we want to do if only we focus our mind on it.