Monday, January 21, 2008

Designer Organisms Promise New Life…At What Cost?

Researchers in the emerging field of synthetic biology (called synbio) envision microbes customized with artificial genes to let them turn sunlight into fuel, clean up industrial waste or monitor patients for the first signs of disease, reports Rob Drummond of the Vancouver Sun (January 19, 2008).

Craig Venter, controversial DNA researcher involved in the race to decipher the human genetic code, has built a synthetic chromosome out of laboratory chemicals and is poised to announce the creation of the first new artificial life form on Earth.” writes Ed Pilkington of the Guardian (October 6, 2007). “The announcement, which is expected [soon] will herald a giant leap forward in the development of designer genomes.
It is certain to provoke heated debate about the ethics of creating new species and could unlock the door to new energy sources and techniques to combat global warming.” Some bacteria, for instance, could break down cellulose to produce ethanol, others may soak up carbon dioxide.

Scientists already produce strings of man-made DNA and splice these into genes of existing organisms, reprogramming bacteria to act like microscopic factories churning out biofuels, reports Bob Drummond of the Vancouver Sun (Jan 19, 2008). This sounds a lot like the artificial virus, Proteus, in my book Darwin’s Paradox. Proteus is an artificially-made life form, a new “virus” with self-awareness, that escapes its confines and teams up with a machine intelligence to violently change the world.

According to the Guardian, a team of 20 top scientists assembled by Mr Venter, led by the Nobel laureate Hamilton Smith, has already made a synthetic chromosome, a bio-engineering feat never before achieved. Using lab-made chemicals, they stitched together a chromosome 381 genes long with 580,000 base pairs of genetic code.

The DNA sequence was based on the bacterium Mycoplasma genitalium which the team pared down to the bare essentials needed to support life, removing a fifth of its genetic make-up. The team have named this completely synthetically reconstructed chromosome Mycoplasma laboratorium. It was then transplanted into a living bacterial cell and in the final stage of the process it is expected to take control of the cell and in effect become a new life form. The team of scientists has already successfully transplanted the genome of one type of bacterium into the cell of another, effectively changing the cell's species. Venter said he was "100% confident" the same technique would work for the artificially created chromosome, said the Guardian.

In a recent interview with New Scientist when asked "Assuming you can make synthetic bacteria, what will you do with them?" Venter replied, “Over the next 20 years, synthetic genomics is going to become the standard for making anything. The chemical industry will depend on it. Hopefully, a large part of the energy industry will depend on it. We really need to find an alternative to taking carbon out of the ground, burning it, and putting it into the atmosphere. That is the single biggest contribution I could make.”

Gene researchers are excited about the potential for energy-producing microbes that may become single-celled refineries for ethanol, biodiesel or other petroleum substitutes eliminating the need to use food crops like corn. In fact, reports Drummond, microbes with custom-designed genes may be able to make all sorts of things. But creating a cell from scratch, as Venter is trying to do, is many years away, says Jay Keasling, chemical engineering professor at the University of California in Berkley. However, he admits that when it does, “it’s going to be a very powerful technology.”

Pat Mooney, director of a Canadian bioethics organisation, ETC group, said the move was a great challenge to society to debate the risks involved. "Governments—and societies in general—are way behind the ball. This is a wake-up call; what does it mean to create new life forms in a test-tube?" Mooney said that Venter was creating a "chassis on which you could build almost anything. It could be a contribution to humanity such as new drugs or a huge threat to humanity such as bio-weapons".

In a subsequent article in the Guardian, Madeleine Bunting writes about a future that “is an industrialisation of nature.” She goes on to say that, “In this brave new world, they talk of a future in which synthetic biologists will work much like graphic designers, building new organisms on their laptops and emailing them off to the gene foundry for construction.” Bunting projects that “by 2015 it's estimated that a fifth of the chemical industry (worth $1.8 trillion) could be dependent on synbio. But if that is to happen, the public have to be kept on side and persuaded that the risks with synbio - and it is a frightening science - are worth taking.” Bunting’s article goes on to describe the negative and dangerous aspects of synbio on two fronts: 1) its eventual accessibility to both the scrupulous and the unscrupulous; and 2) the potential calamity of accidental contamination, mutation, etc.

Bunting reminds us of GMs claim to alleviate chronic vitamin A deficiency across Asia with “golden rice”. She draws a parallel with synbio’s “poster child” the production of a cheap anti-malarial drug and quotes Drew Endy, at the Massachussets Institute of Technology: "I expect this technology will be misapplied... and it would be irresponsible to have a conversation about the technology without acknowledging that fact." Sir Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society, also talks of bioterror or "bioerror"—a mistake that could lead to a million casualties in a single event by 2020. Bunting is by no means alone in her thoughts of peril behind the wonder. Molecular biologist, Alan Goldstein, in a post called "I, nanobot" on the Lifeboat Foundation blog, says simply: "Scientists are on the verge of breaking the carbon barrier — creating artificial life and changing forever what it means to be human. And we're not ready."

This reminds me of the scenario I discussed in a previous post on AI evolution, entitled “Cyborgs & Evolution”, in which Bill Joy, cofounder of Sun Microsystems cautioned: “We have the possibility not just of weapons of mass destruction but of knowledge-enabled mass destruction (KMD), this destructiveness hugely amplified by the power of self-replication.” He fired home the point by suggesting that “a bomb is blown up only once—but one bot can become many, and quickly get out of control.” Joy warned that nanotechnological devices in the hands of terrorists or an unscrupulous military could become the ultimate genocidal weapon, created to be selectively destructive, and affecting only a certain geographical area or group of genetically distinct people. Transhumanist and AI visionary, Ray Kurzweil argued back that: “People often go through three stages in examining the impact of future technology: awe and wonderment at its potential to overcome age old problems, then a sense of dread at a new set of grave dangers that accompany these new technologies, followed, finally and hopefully, by the realization that the only viable and responsible path is to set a careful course that can realize the promise while managing the peril.”

Madeleine Bunting ends her article in the Guardian with these questions: “We might have a "new, improved nature" which is more efficient in meeting our needs and ensuring the survival of future generations: is that a threat or a promise of salvation? And who are we going to trust to make that judgment call?”

Only time will tell whether the cynics or the optimists will prevail. Perhaps, like in all things to do with humanity, it will be a mix of both. I just pray that it will be the right mix to teach us without wiping us out.

More About Craig Venter:
Former president and founder of Celera Genomics, Venter became famous for running a parallel version of the Human Genome Project for commercial purposes, using shotgun sequencing technology in 1999 (Wikipedia) . The intent of the Celera project was to create a database of genomic data that users could subscribe to for a fee. This proved very unpopular in the genetics community and spurred several groups to redouble their efforts to produce the full sequence and release it as open access. DNA from 5 individuals was used by Celera to generate the sequence of the human genome; one of the 5 being Venter. The Human Genome Project, composed of many groups from around the world, then made privatizing the process unfeasible. Celera fired Venter in early 2002 after it became clear that selling genome data would not become profitable and Venter resisted efforts by the company board to change the strategic direction of the company.
Despite their differing motivations, Venter and rival scientist
Francis Collins of the National Institute of Health jointly made the announcement of the mapping of the human genome in 2000, along with US President Bill Clinton. On September 4th, 2007, a team led by Venter published his complete DNA sequence, unveiling the six-billion-letter genome of a single individual for the first time. Some of the sequences in Venter's genome are associated with wet earwax, increased risk of antisocial behavior, Alzheimer's and cardiovascular diseases. This publication was especially interesting since it contained a diploid instead of a haploid genome and shows promise for personalized medicine via genotyping.
Bunting, Madeleine. “Scientists have a new way to reshape nature, but none can predict the cost” The Guardian, October 22, 2007:

Cosmos. “Geneticists on verge of creating artificial life”, October 8, 2007.

Drummond, Bob. "Designer organisms spark debate among scientists" Vancouver Sun, Jan 19, 2008.
Highfield, Roger. “Man-made microbe to create endless biofuel”, August 5, 2007.

New Scientist Issue 2626 Pg 57

Pilkington, Ed. “I am creating artificial life, declares US gene pioneer” The Guardian, Oct. 6, 2007.

Shreeve, Jamie. "
The Blueprint of Life," U.S. News and World Report, 10/31/05, URL accessed 30 January 2007.


Wired Science:

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.


Craig Smith said...

Very interesting article. I read about Craig Venter and his research before. He seems to be head of his time! The technology sounds like it has great potential. This sort of thing has been covered in SF but it will be great to see it come to life in our life times!

Nina Munteanu said...

Indeed, Craig! We do live in exciting times, provided by clever technology. I'm looking forward to seeing what we do with it.

Jean-Luc Picard said...

One can imagine that in the future we will look back on these times when scientists were first starting out along the road. Will we be be glad they did, or rue the day? Only time will tell.

Nina Munteanu said...

Yes, Jean-Luc... that will depend on what choices we make today...

ndpthepoetress Jean Michelle Culp said...

You always have an array of intellectually interesting posts with ample relevant links to keep the mind intrigued! I thoroughly enjoy visiting :)

Nina Munteanu said...

Gee, thanks, Jeanne! Glad you like my ramblings... :) I find all this "new" science quite fascinating (as Spock would say) and feel compelled to share for discussion...

Nina Munteanu said...

My cartoonist friend, Josh, over at Dinosapiens, said something to me on Blogcatalog that I found compelling and wanted to share. Hope you don't mind, Josh. He said: "Your post about synthetic life is quite frightening. I think that sometimes the problem can be that geeks research new technologies because of the challenge, while governments keep a watchful eye and bide their time till the technology is ready for use by the military."

I agree with you, Josh... it IS a little frightening... like watching little kids naively playing with fire while the guy in the white van lurks outside the school yard...waiting...

But, if we aren't frightened by something, then I don't think we are aware in the world...

EuroYank - Virginia Hoge said...

Actually it was only by a chance meteor hitting the earth millions of years ago, that the dinosaurs were wiped out and Man became the dominant species on this planet. I am certain that other species are dominant to Man since this planet is only 4 billion years old and the universe is about 16-20 billion years old. By those calculations Man is just an ant and is destined to wipe himself out!

Nina Munteanu said...

LOL! Yes, interesting observation, Euroyank...And astute. It's interesting how we tend to think of everything in terms of our species, and its importance (forgetting that other intelligent species exist who occupy niches equally important to ours). What hubris! If you ponder issues from an eco-centric view, it all changes. As an ecologist who is an environmental consultant (primarily servicing industry), I am often put in the position of translating and arguing Nature's values into human values (which usually boils down to economics). By the way, Euroyank, you look an awful lot like my friend, Neo...