Friday, May 21, 2010

It's Alive: Man-Created Life?

[Above: U.S. biologist Dr. J. Craig Venter claims to have created the first man-made cell in one of the biggest scientific breakthroughs of the past two decades.]

It may seem odd to find a science breakthrough discussed at a website devoted to Wicca, but this report deserves discussion everywhere, as it may force us all to reconsider the very definitions of Life and Creator.

U.S. scientists have created artificial life for the first time. They have developed a tiny new bacterium, or "synthetic cell," that is controlled by man-made DNA. Commentators said the scientists created a form of life never before seen on the planet.

The technological advance is the culmination of 15 years of research costing more than $47 million by a team led by Dr. Craig Venter, a controversial American biologist and entrepreneur.

"This is the first synthetic cell that's been made, and we call it synthetic because the cell is totally derived from a synthetic chromosome," Venter said.

The breakthrough promises the creation of new, useful synthetic bacteria that can clean up pollution or produce energy, but there are also concerns man-made microbes could escape the lab or be used as weapons by terrorists.

Mark Bedau, editor of the scientific journal Artificial Life, said the research represented "a defining moment in the history of biology and biotechnology."

Venter said his team's research was scientifically and philosophically important. "It certainly changed my views of the definitions of life and how life works."

Predictable, the Catholic Church was not pleased. Senior Italian Roman Catholic bishops expressed concern today, saying the creation of the first synthetic living cell could be a "devastating" move.

"In the wrong hands, today's novelty could lead to a devastating step into the unknown tomorrow," said Bishop Domenico Mogavero, head of the legal affairs commission for the Italian Episcopal Conference, in an interview with La Stampa daily.

"Man comes to God, but he is not God: he remains human and he has the possibility to give life through procreation, not through constructing it artificially," he added.

Catholic religious leaders have expressed fears however that scientists are "playing God."

"It is human nature which gives its dignity to the human genome, not the inverse. The nightmare to be fought is the manipulation of life," Mogavero said.

Bruno Forte, archbishop of Chieti-Vasto in central Italy and a theologian, said: "The worry can be resumed in one question – is what is scientifically possible also just from an ethical point of view?"

He added in comments to Corriere della Sera that he admired modern research and that the Church was not "fundamentally" opposed to it but was carefully monitoring.

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said that more detail on the discovery was needed. "There have already been similar announcements which after a while have been changed."

[Above photo: Electron micrograph of the ‘new’ yeast cells (Image from J. Craig Venter Institute)]

What is the reaction from Wiccans? As different as there are Wiccans to express it.

Personally, I find the creation of artificial life wondrous and astonishing, but equal parts frightening – not because man dares to play God, but because the possibility exists that it could be misused. I fear that ethics/morality has again lagged behind science and technology.

One of the Venter team's main aims is to design algae that can capture carbon dioxide and produce oil for fuel. The approach could also have benefits in speeding up vaccine production, cleaning water and producing chemicals and food ingredients, he said.

But Georgia Miller, of Friends of the Earth, said there was a risk that synthetic organisms could harm the environment or be used for malicious purposes.

Regulations to control them were lacking, she noted. "Although we've known this day would come for many years, governments have done very little."

She was also critical that the researchers have filed patent applications on some of their techniques, with the risk that, "new organisms could be owned by their developers."

Michael Selgelid, deputy director of the National Centre for Biosecurity at the Australian National University, said the research was an "historical achievement" with "enormous potential," although its promise had yet to be realized.

He said many new technologies, including synthetic biology, could be used for good or evil, and the development of dangerous synthetic microbes as weapons was a major concern.

Better regulations and safeguards had been under discussion for a decade, including reviewing the risk of "dual purpose" use of research when a project was first proposed and strengthening international conventions on bioterrorism.

Venter said he had ensured an extensive bioethical review of the implications of the research had been done first.

A report published in the Science journal details how the team effectively stimulated a yeast cell into taking on the new life. Scientists at first made short strands of DNA and then put them together to form a chromosome, which was then inserted into the yeast cell, replacing its native DNA.

They found the cell took on the appearance and behavior of the transplanted chromosome, generating different proteins and multiplying.

"This is the first synthetic cell that's been made, and we call it synthetic because the cell is totally derived from a synthetic chromosome," Venter said. "This is an important step we think, both scientifically and philosophically. It's certainly changed my views of the definitions of life and how life works."

His team had created the genome of the bacterium, Mycoplasma mycoides, from scratch, using bits of DNA bought from biotech companies, and after inserting it the synthetic genome "booted up" the recipient cells, so they began to replicate and produce M. mycoides proteins, thus creating “synthetic life.”

"We clearly transformed one cell into another," said Venter, who heads the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland. "This becomes a very powerful tool for trying to design what we want biology to do. We have a wide range of applications [in mind]."

Other groups are working on the same thing around the world, but Venter's team is the first to have accomplished it.

"He's the man who has opened up a new chapter, where we are not just looking at life that has evolved – but life that is created in a laboratory," said science correspondent Thomas Moore.

Ethicist Dr. Thomas Douglas said the research opened up a number of dilemmas. "Some will worry about the idea that this involves a problematic form of playing God," he said. "Some will worry that this is undermining the distinction of living beings and machines.”

“I think the greatest issue posed by this research is not really anything to do with the fact that it's artificial life as such, it's got to do with the potential for this kind of research to be misused to create pathogens that could be used in biological weapons," Douglas said.

Venter came to prominence when he challenged publicly-funded scientists working on the Human Genome Project – the first attempt to produce a complete map of the human genetic code.

He set out to construct his own private version of the human genome, using a different "short cut" method. His team succeeded but the race ended in a dead heat when both versions were published simultaneously in Science in 2001.

I find this scientific achievement so profound and important that I am posting the original article from the Science journal in full below. If you prefer, read it directly at its website:

[Above: Life re-created. Blue colonies (top) indicate a successfully transplanted genome, with self-replicating bacteria revealed in an electron micrograph. Photo Credit from (Top to Bottom: J. Craig Venter Institute; T. Deerinck and M. Ellisman/NcMir, University of California, San Diego]

News of the Week
Synthetic Genome Brings New Life to Bacterium
By Elizabeth Pennisi

For 15 years, J. Craig Venter has chased a dream: to build a genome from scratch and use it to make synthetic life. Now, he and his team at the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) in Rockville, Maryland, and San Diego, California, say they have realized that dream. In this week's Science Express, they describe the stepwise creation of a bacterial chromosome and the successful transfer of it into a bacterium, where it replaced the native DNA. Powered by the synthetic genome, that microbial cell began replicating and making a new set of proteins.

This is "a defining moment in the history of biology and biotechnology," says Mark Bedau, a philosopher at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, and editor of the scientific journal Artificial Life. "It represents an important technical milestone in the new field of synthetic genomics," says yeast biologist Jef Boeke of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland.

The synthetic genome created by Venter's team is almost identical to that of a natural bacterium. It was achieved at great expense, an estimated $40 million, and effort, 20 people working for more than a decade. Despite this success, creating heavily customized genomes, such as ones that make fuels or pharmaceuticals, and getting them to "boot" up the same way in a cell is not yet a reality. "There are great challenges ahead before genetic engineers can mix, match, and fully design an organism's genome from scratch," notes Paul Keim, a molecular geneticist at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.

The "synthetic" bacteria unveiled this week have their origins in a project headed by Venter and JCVI colleagues Clyde Hutchison III and Hamilton Smith to determine the minimal instructions needed for microbial life and from there add genes that could turn a bacterium into a factory producing compounds useful for humankind. In 1995, a team led by the trio sequenced the 600,000-base chromosome of a bacterium called Mycoplasma genitalium, the smallest genome of a free-living organism. The microbe has about 500 genes, and researchers found they could delete 100 individual genes without ill effect (Science, 14 February 2003, p. 1006).

But confirming the minimal genome suggested by those experiments required synthesizing a full bacterial chromosome and getting it to work in a recipient cell, two steps that have taken years because the technology to make and manipulate whole chromosomes did not exist. In 2007, Venter, Smith, Hutchison, and colleagues finally demonstrated that they could transplant natural chromosomes from one microbial species to another (Science, 3 August 2007, p. 632). By 2008, they showed that they could make an artificial chromosome that matched M. genitalium's but also contained "watermark" DNA sequences that would enable them to tell the synthetic genome from the natural one (Science, 29 February 2008, p. 1215).

But combining those steps became bogged down, in part because M. genitalium grows so slowly that one experiment can take weeks to complete. The team decided to change microbes in midstream, sequencing the 1-million-base genome of the faster-growing M. mycoides and beginning to build a synthetic copy of its chromosome. Last year, they showed they could extract the M. mycoides natural chromosome, place it into yeast, modify the bacterial genome, and then transfer it to M. capricolum, a close microbial relative (Science, 21 August 2009, p. 928; 25 September 2009, p. 1693). The next step was to show that the synthetic copy of the bacterial DNA could be handled the same way.

The researchers started building their synthetic chromosome by going DNA shopping. They bought from a company more than 1000 1080-base sequences that covered the whole M. mycoides genome; to facilitate their assembly in the correct order, the ends of each sequence had 80 bases that overlapped with its neighbors. So that the assembled genome would be recognizable as synthetic, four of the ordered DNA sequences contained strings of bases that, in code, spell out an e-mail address, the names of many of the people involved in the project, and a few famous quotations.

Using yeast to assemble the synthetic DNA in stages, the researchers first stitched together 10,000-base sequences, then 100,000-base sequences, and finally the complete genome. However, when they initially put the synthetic genome into M. capricolum, nothing happened. Like computer programmers debugging faulty software, they systematically transplanted combinations of synthetic and natural DNA, finally homing in on a single-base mistake in the synthetic genome. The error delayed the project 3 months.

After months of unsuccessfully transplanting these various genome combinations, the team's fortune changed about a month ago when the biologists found a blue colony of bacteria had rapidly grown on a lab plate over the weekend. (Blue showed the cells were using the new genome). Project leader Daniel Gibson sent Venter a text message declaring success. "I took my video camera in and filmed [the plate]," says Venter.

They sequenced the DNA in this colony, confirming that the bacteria had the synthetic genome, and checked that the microbes were indeed making proteins characteristic of M. mycoides rather than M capricolum. The colony grew like a typical M. mycoides as well. "We clearly transformed one cell into another," says Venter.

"That's a pretty amazing accomplishment," says Anthony Forster, a molecular biologist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Still, he and others emphasize that this work didn't create a truly synthetic life form, because the genome was put into an existing cell.

At the moment, the techniques employed by Venter's team are too difficult to appeal to any potential bioterrorists, researchers stress. Nonetheless, "this experiment will certainly reconfigure the ethical imagination," says Paul Rabinow, an anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies synthetic biology. "Over the long term, the approach will be used to synthesize increasingly novel designed genomes," says Kenneth Oye, a social scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. "Right now, we are shooting in the dark as to what the long-term benefits and long-term risks will be."

As ever more "artificial" life comes into reach, regulatory agencies will need to establish the proper regulations in a timely fashion, adds Oye. "The possibility of misuse unfortunately exists," says Eckard Wimmer of Stony Brook University in New York state, who led a team that in 2002 created the first synthetic virus (Science, 9 August 2002, p. 1016).

Venter says that JCVI has applied for several patents covering the work, assigning them to his company, Synthetic Genomics, which provided much of the funding for the project. A technology watchdog group, ETC Group in Ottawa, has argued that these actions could result in a monopoly on synthesized life (Science, 15 June 2007, p. 1557), but others are not worried. Given the current climate for granting and upholding patents of this type, says Oye, "it is unlikely that Synthetic Genomics will become the Microsoft of synthetic biology."

"One thing is sure," Boeke says. "Interesting creatures will be bubbling out of the Venter Institute's labs."


OK. Everyone take a few deep breaths, then let them out. What does this mean? How does it make you feel? Does it shake your faith, or deepen it? I think each one of us should ponder the impact of this achievement, and try to incorporate it into our world view. For me, it joins those rare events that will cause me to remember for the rest of my life where I was and what I was doing when I heard the news.

I believe in a created world, and I adhere to evolution. This incredible achievement does nothing to alter that. As a Wiccan, I believe a spark from the Cosmic Creator exists in absolutely everything, everywhere. The scientists were still using the building blocks provided to them by Her, and magnificently rearranged them in a biological pattern never seen before. Those of us who create using more traditional venues, i.e. art, dance, music, writing, will already know a bit of what those scientists must be feeling.

Frankly, I did read about this achieve­ment with a mix­ture of awe and fear. I worry that there are not bio-ethics in place to deal with yet another incred­i­ble techno advance. Moral­ity has always lagged behind progress, but now it has become merely a dot in the rear-view mir­ror of a Brave New World that is accel­er­at­ing beyond anyone’s expec­ta­tion, or even imagination.

Now though, I will continue to await scientific evidence that life exists elsewhere in the galaxy. Once that happens, I will be able to say I saw everything that I had ever wanted to in my life.

— Danu’s Daughter


  1. In other ways, man (humankind, both men and women) has been creating new life forms for literally millenniums. Selective breeding and cross-breeding has given us most of our modern food crops, today’s cattle, our dogs and cats. More recently if has given us modified bacteria designed to attack very specific plant diseases. And now man has chemically created genetic material, bypassing the cross-breeding and gene-splicing processes used in the past. This amazing creative act will most likely have the same result that man’s past amazing creative acts have had; it will lead to new amazing creative acts, it will lead to fantastic improvements in man’s life, and it will also lead to unforeseen difficulties that require new amazing creative acts to resolve.

    When man began down the path of living life not just by adapting to nature but by molding nature to fit his (excuse my “sexist” training, I was taught English grammar in the old days, I mean no slight to my favorite sex) needs, he, perhaps unknowingly, accepted a role as creator. With that role came great powers and great responsibility and great rewards. We live on Occam’s Razor, we can create so much but not everything we can create will be beneficial. We just need to be careful.

  2. There is also the view, held by many Wiccans and other Neo-Pagans, that each one of us literally CREATES our life everyday, and not merely metaphysically.

    I am excited by this achievement, but do believe we need updated bioethics to ensure it's used constructively and not destructively (as in a bioweapon, etc.)