April 19, 2024


Excitement about so-called “synthetic life” is growing as scientists reflect more on the implications of experiments which are aimed at creating artificial cells.

A group of eminent scientists gathered in Ilulissat, Greenland, has released a predicting a scientific revolution: “Fifty years from now, synthetic biology will be as pervasive and transformative as is electronics today. And as with that technology, the applications and impacts are impossible to predict in the field’s nascent stages. Nevertheless, the decisions we make now will have enormous impact on the shape of this future.”

The latest development to hit the headlines involves one of the Ilulissat signatories, J. Craig Venter, the colourful head of Synthetic Genomics. He reports in the journal Science that his team has transformed one species of microbe into another by transplanting DNA. “This is equivalent to changing a Macintosh computer into a PC by inserting a new piece of [PC] software,” he explained. A senior editor of Science called the experiment “a landmark in biological engineering” — although other scientists pointed out that Venter still doesn’t understand how it works. In any case, this success takes him one step closer to his goal of creating an artificial chromosome.

The emergence of synthetic biology presents scientists with ethical and philosophical conundrums as well, the journal Nature points out. It argues that the idea of “creating life” is archaic and pre- Darwinian because “life” is a nearly meaningless concept. Synthetic biology also challenges “religious dogmas” about the embryo, says Nature, in the syntactically tortured conclusion to its editorial:

“If this view undermines the notion that a ‘divine spark’ abruptly gives value to a fertilised egg — recognising as it does that the formation of a new being is gradual, contingent and precarious — then the role of the term ‘life’ in that debate might acquire the ambiguity that it has always warranted.”