Just a week ago I listened to a BBC Four programme on sacred music, and then I switched on my computer. My mind was still thrilling with the faith of the composers and those moments of musical beauty which restore belief in the human spirit. Then suddenly I was in a laboratory with bacteria and chopped up DNA and a claim that synthetic life had been achieved.
From the sublime to the…? Well, to the sublime. For the sublime is to look through the threshold and see a great wonder. And the beauty of music is just such a wonder but so, in another part of human experience, is the wonder of discovery – and in this case, I think, a key stage in scientific knowledge.
What has happened is straightforward. The team of scientists at the J Craig Venter Institute have replaced the DNA in a cell with artificially synthesised DNA of an existing genome from another bacterium. So we have a natural cell containing a set of artificial instructions. Those instructions enable the cell to proliferate. The offspring cells, which are formed according to the artificial instructions, are now wholly synthetic.
Does this process constitute creation of life from scratch, or an arrogation of divine power – as many newspapers have intimated? I will return to this question, but the scientists themselves give a straight answer: “No, we do not consider this to be ‘creating life from scratch’ but rather we are creating new life out of already existing life using synthetic DNA to reprogramme the cells to form new cells that are specified by the synthetic DNA.”
A kind of reverse engineering has taken place. As a result of biologists being able to analyse the DNA in living organisms, they know enough to start constructing artificial genetic code by imitating and varying known combinations. In this case the transfer was not “perfect” although the few errors appear not to be significant. Dramatic though this first success may be, a great deal of work remains to be done. Genome transfer techniques must be refined and applied in a variety of conditions, followed by experimentation in modifying DNA to achieve different effects in different bacteria. Using an aviation analogy, the Wright brothers have just made their first flight, and the team at the Venter Institute, and their successors, have a great deal of work to do.
The project was conceptualised in the mid 1990s, but work in earnest started in 2003. I will not even attempt to describe the complexities, the setbacks and the frustration of the work. The project, which has involved 20 people for over a decade, has cost $40 million so far. Ironically, they were attempting to do the job at the simplest level possible; that is, to produce organisms with the least DNA needed to live and reproduce. They did not quite achieve their ideal, and the process of further simplification continues.
So what? “One small step for one man… one giant leap for mankind.” A cell so small that you need an electron microscope to see it lacks the same dramatic quality as landing on the moon. But I am willing to bet that in 100 years that small cell will have proved many times more significant for the human race. For good or ill.
The great achievement is to have proved the possibility of constructing synthetic, but living and reproducing, organisms. Now, through trial and error, experimental success and failure, we will learn how to make more complex and more useful organisms. This will enable us to understand in greater depth how life works. More complex organisms, developed over time, could lead to new vaccines and drugs, provide new sources of food, textiles and biofuels, enable the cleaning of water and the repair of damaged organs. It could lead to new industries and sources of wealth. The prospect is full of wonder. Against that, there is the possibility that unforeseen insuperable barriers could trump progress. And organisms which live and reproduce can spread – giving rise to the same fears that are attached to genetically manipulated crops. As a recent British report put it: “There is widespread recognition of the potential for negative outcomes.”
It would seem that the scientists currently working in this field know the immediate answers to these dangers, but when the work has been imitated (and what advanced economy would dare to be without this facility?) who will control it then? And if natural environmental danger isn’t enough, there is also the development of weapons of war and terrorism. A dust cloud of volcanic ash is one thing, a dust cloud of swiftly breeding pathological organisms is another.
I am tempted to consider the possibility that, if rogue synthetic viruses were to escape, they would eventually produce random mutations and so develop a wholly new evolutionary line. Fortunately such an outcome is likely to be hundreds of millions of year away. In this respect we can sleep soundly.
I have a ready concern for those whose worries are more of a metaphysical nature. But, having watched the Craig Venter project from the sidelines over the years, I believe that that worry is misplaced. Although there has been much discussion of the combination of phenomena needed to trigger reproductive life on this planet, the most recalcitrant questions address the earliest stages. By the time that we reach the kind of bacterial cell with which the Venter work is concerned, it is (and I speak relatively, of course) plain sailing. It has been obvious for some time that only problems of practice and technique rather than principle stood between the Venter Institute and its goal.
It is not, as it happens, an issue of whether life on this planet, or elsewhere, started through some random confluence of physical phenomena or through the direct action of God. Anyone is free to take a view, but I hold that to reduce God to some kind of mechanistic, designing agent is to create him in our own image. We simply do not know how an infinite, transcendent God sets about his business. But we find clues to him in the human spirit which lies behind our endless search to bring the creation he has given us under our dominion – in this case the agency of Craig Venter scientists – as much as we find him in the musical expression of Bach or Handel or Gorezski. Our hearts should be humbled by both and lifted to praise God.
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Here are links to three articles from specialist science publications to paste into your browser; they will give those interested more detailed information than my broadly based article.