Sunday, January 27, 2008

Life: the spark

For some reason I temporarily overlooked this article (B8, Gautam Naik, subscription required) concerning the continuing effort of scientists to create life. Regular readers know my strong views on this topic. Yes, science should strive to advance knowledge and answer questions. No, it should not play God or try to create life because, quite frankly, if we've been around for a few thousand years and had all that time to work on the creating question, and haven't succeeded, why should we think that science has progressed beyond us? I'll be happy to debate that question to an extent. Below, the bold is mine.

Biologist Craig Venter and his team replicated a bacterium's genetic structure entirely from laboratory chemicals, moving one step closer to creating the world's first living artificial organism.

The scientists assembled the synthetic genome by stringing together chemicals that are the building blocks of DNA. Each of those, by itself, is a fairly complex bit of chemistry. The synthetic genome was constructed so it included all the genes that would be found in a naturally occurring bacterium.

The research was published in the online version of the journal Science by a team of scientists from the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Md. The authors include Hamilton Smith, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1978.

"It's the second significant step of a three-step process to create a synthetic organism," said Dr. Venter, in a conference call with reporters. The final step could prove far trickier...

The scientific challenge of creating synthetic life isn't trivial, nor are the ethical and legal concerns. The potential for terrorism, perhaps. There is little government oversight, and researchers involved in such experiments regulate themselves. Detractors worry that the lack of safeguards increases the risks that a potentially dangerous man-made organism might run amok. (In creating the artificial genome of Mycoplasma, Dr. Venter's team disrupted the genes that would enable it to infect other organisms.)

Nonetheless, the science is pushing forward at a rapid pace. In June, a Venter-led team published details of an experiment in which it inserted the DNA of one species of bacteria into the cells of another bacteria species. That process almost magically "booted up" the genome of the donor bacteria, sparking it to life... That was the first step, I believe.

Dr. Venter now believes that the challenge of creating a synthetic organism is within his grasp. "I'll be...disappointed if we can't do it in 2008," he said.

Yes, what he's doing is most likely possible. However, the impression one gets from the headlines is that he's trying to create the "vital spark," which is, in all probability, impossible. Ah well.

1 comment:

Marie N. said...


Your site was mentioned on another I read, and I don't recall which for certain. Perhaps it was Round Unvarnished Tale? I know it was a Lutheran Home Schooler.