One small step…

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.
O O O
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.

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=synthetic-genome-cell
http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/reprint/328/5981/958.pdf
http://www.nature.com/news/2010/100520/full/news.2010.253.html

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Bio-ethics, Catholic Herald. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to One small step…

  1. Vincent says:

    Although Quentin draws attention to the dangers of this new advance I am considerably less optimistic than him.
    At this stage scientists are still at an elementary stage in writing synthetic genetic code – but they will learn.
    Human nature being what it is I fear to think how they may manipulate living things.
    It may be a very long time before they can produce a completely synthetic human genome. But then they don’t need to. All they have to do is to modify any existing human genome in any way they wish. Noy only are there great dangers but how can we be complacent about interfering with human beings created by God (by whatever means)?

  2. st.joseph says:

    My grandmother often said ‘Man will eventually destroy himself’

    I wonder how true that is by taking ‘one small step’ in the wrong direction.

  3. claret says:

    Quentin describes ‘what has happened is straightforward.’ It is a sign of my diminishinhg intellect that what is ‘straightforward’ to him remains a total mystery to me and I was ‘lost’ within a few words of his, no doubt, succinct explanation.
    Ignorant as I am of these matters they do not yet fill me with much to be alarmed about. I just consign them to the same bin that is now overflowing with discoveries that will change mankind and yet fall at the first hurdle never to be heard of again.
    Cynical I may well be but these ‘discoveries’ that promise so much are often just appeals for more cash to prop up some obscure experimentation accompanied with a kind of blackmail that if this funding is not forthcoming then mankind will miss out on lots of cures for all types of diseases that are only a few million pounds / dollars away from discovery.

  4. eclaire says:

    Nothing to worry about; due to decreasing population, none of us will be here to see anything through…or so it was suggested not so long ago.

  5. RMBlaber says:

    J Craig Venter’s work is certainly not the creation of ‘artificial life’ (that is more hype than fact!). That would have entailed, as Quentin points out, a literal starting from scratch, with a collection of inanimate chemicals in a laboratory receptacle at the beginning, and a living organism as end-product. The nearest anyone has ever got to that is the Miller-Urey experiment at the University of Chicago in 1952, which turned water, methane, ammonia and hydrogen into a set of organic compounds. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miller%E2%80%93Urey_experiment.

    Vincent’s and St Joseph’s concerns are certainly valid, and I would not accuse them of exaggerating. While there are possible medical benefits from this research, and benefits in other areas, such as agriculture, there are also many potential dangers. One of the greatest of these is what I would the ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ Trap. In the story of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the problem was less the apprentice’s knowledge than his ignorance. He knew how to get the spell started, but didn’t know how to stop it.

    Geneticists are at the sorcerer’s apprentice stage. By genetic manipulation, they can do some fairly terrible things to poor old _Drosophila melanobacter_ (the fruitfly) – make it grow an extra pair of wings, or another head, and so on. Thankfully, they are not allowed to do this to people, or even to animals much further up the evolutionary chain than _Mus musculus_ (the house mouse) or _Rattus norvegicus_ (the brown rat).

    Much of their knowledge has come from conducting experiments where they have said to themselves, ‘What happens when we remove this gene, or insert that one?’ There are still many genes whose function is unknown to them. Some genes – many genes – have more than one function: by being ‘read’ in a different way they can encode two or more proteins, instead of just one.

    One of the things the enthusiasts for ‘artificial life’ are keenest on is the idea of creating a bacterium that will eat crude oil, so that, whenever there is an oil spill, like the current one in the Gulf of Mexico, it can be cleaned up quickly using this synthetic biological agent. Another idea is for one that will eat plastic – again, with the idea of cleaning up the environment.

    Those of us with long memories will remember a BBC science fiction series from the 1970s called ‘Doomwatch’, and its particularly memorable first episode, ‘The Plastic Eaters’, which featured just such a bacterium, and what happened when it escaped the laboratory. The plane crash it caused, with bits of the plane simply melting away (there are lots of vital parts of an aeroplane made of plastic as well as metal) is one exceptionally vivid image.

    What would happen if the oil-eating bacterium got out of control? Our civilisation and economy depends on oil to the extent that it once depended on coal – the result would be catastrophic.

    Eclaire thinks that ‘the population’ is decreasing. The world’s population is _increasing_, at a current rate of 1.1% pa, is presently 6.8 billion (UN, 2009; US Census Bureau, 2010), and is expected to reach 9 billion between 2040-50. However, ‘there’s many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip’, and the sort of catastrophe I have outlined would certainly have a large negative impact on those figures.

    I cannot leave this subject without referring to transhumanism. (See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transhumanism.) The basic principle of this ideology is that ‘imperfections’ of the human condition, such as disability, suffering, disease, ageing and involuntary death are undesirable and should be eliminated, and that science and technology should be used for this purpose, and to enhance human mental and physical powers. Genetics is one route to achieving these aims; cyber-technology another. The historian Francis Fukuyama has described transhumanism as ‘the world’s most dangerous idea’ – I regard it as the world’s most repulsive idea, as well as dangerous.

    Why shouldn’t we want to ‘eliminate’ disease, suffering and so on? There’s nothing wrong with curing or preventing disease or unnecessary suffering – quite the contrary. If genetics can help do that, then fine. But if by eliminating disability, you mean ensure that disabled people are never born in the first place, because they are aborted in the womb, having been identified as disabled by a genetic test, then that is quite another matter. Then we are talking eugenics, and the Nazi’s _Lebensborn_ programme. And I, for one, will have none of it.

    The ‘artificial life’ aspect of transhumanism comes in at an even earlier stage, with germ-line gene therapy – altering the haploid DNA of the mother’s ovum or father’s sperm (the former is easier, for the simple reason that the egg is so much larger) in order to introduce a permanent change to the line of inheritance, say by eliminating the genes for muscular dystrophy or cystic fibrosis. In future, of course, it might be possible to insert wholly artificial genes to convey extra intelligence, or superior hand-eye coordination, or whatever.

    We may well be standing up against a colossal juggernaut in opposing all of this, but we have to try, and do so now before it’s too late.

  6. Fariam says:

    You might like to check out this article, “Craig Venter has neither created–nor demystified–life” at
    http://www.scientificamerican.com/blog/post.cfm?id=craig-venter-has-neither-creatednor-2010-05-27

  7. tim says:

    This is a technically highly accomplished and elegant experiment, of very limited ultimate significance. The genome of an existing organism (with a few tweaks) has been reproduced entirely from synthetic DNA – and been shown to work as a genome in the same way as ‘natural’ DNA. The result, however, is just what one would expect. It has been known for decades that genomes can be manipulated by inserting artificial DNA, or deleting natural DNA (or both) and that viable organisms result. There was no reason to think that copying the whole of an organism’s DNA would work any differently. The experiment is analogous to that of Wöhler, in 1828, who was the first to synthesise an ‘organic’ compound (urea) from wholly inorganic components, thereby disproving vitalism.

    As to opportunities and threats from the technology, these undoubtedly exist, but have been apparent since the 1970’s. The new work makes no real change. We still don’t know what is essential to make an organism work, or why, or how to design an organism from scratch to get any particular desired result. To get a useful new organism, with present knowledge, it is much easier to introduce a few genes of known function into an existing natural genome.

  8. Superview says:

    There are some impressive comments above with a degree of technical understanding that leaves me content to accept that even great effort on my part would be unlikely to reach this standard. What does intrigue me in all of this is the way the ethics of experiment and research into such fundamentals are to be developed. I am surprised by how open-minded I find myself on the issues – in part a consequence of what I see, with some consternation, increasingly as the absence of a distinctive and convincing Catholic, if not to say Christian, authority.
    Of course there are numerous imaginable, and possible, horrific consequences down the line that would wreck our sense of humanity, but is this risk so real that all work that is remotely open to these possibilities, even with a balancing good, is tainted? One parallel field that comes to mind is nuclear physics, which offers the destruction of life on earth, yet is counter-balanced by numerous benefits.
    Even as we speak to the secular world, can we ask ourselves, rhetorically, if Man is made in God’s image, isn’t it to be expected that he will desire to know and understand all things in creation?

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