Artificial Life: Here It Comes
Last week The Guardian reported that Dr. J. Craig Venter, founder of The Institute for Genomic Research, will soon announce that his team of scientists has created the first artificial organism made from synthetic chromosomes. This will mark the first time that a synthetic life form has been created in a lab. The chromosome for the new species of bacteria is 381 genes long and contains 580,000 base pairs of genetic code. The basis of the organism comes from the bacterium called Mycoplasma genitalium. Venter's team removed one-fifth of the Mycoplasma genitalium's genetic material and replaced it with their synthetic chromosome. Then they transplanted the genetic material into a living bacteria, anticipating that this process will create a new species. This species, most likely to be named Mycoplasma laboratorium, is being patented by Dr. Venter.
The project opens up a number of questions regarding “designer genomes” and the potential advantages and risks of manipulating DNA with synthetic chemicals. Venter has stated that possible uses for synthetic species include new types of medical treatments, alternative energy sources, and, most frighteningly, new forms of biological weapons. Several philosophical and ethical questions are raised by the project, including the ethics of creating and patenting new species of biological life, and the authority of science to introduce new organisms into our planetary ecology without an adequate knowledge of possible environmental consequences.
Dr. Venter has been notorious for stirring up controversy, attempting to commercialize and patent the genome project, and exhibiting a penchant for sensationalistic self-publicizing. There have already been some critical responses to the Mycoplasma laboratorium project in the media and the blogosphere, such as Dr. Nick Gay's editorial response in The Guardian, claiming that Venter's project is a clever sham that does not actually advance scientific research.
Venter, for his part, seems intent on ignoring criticism of the project, boldly stating in the Guardian article, "We are not afraid to take on things that are important just because they stimulate thinking,' he said. 'We are dealing in big ideas. We are trying to create a new value system for life. When dealing at this scale, you can't expect everybody to be happy."
Tristan Gulliford is a writer, dreamer, and aspiring myth-keeper who makes electronic music under the name "Dreamcode". He is currently attending the University of Colorado at Boulder.