Scientists in the United States have succeeded in developing the first living cell to be controlled entirely by synthetic DNA. The researchers constructed a bacterium’s “genetic software” and transplanted it into a host cell. The advance, published in Science, has been hailed as a scientific landmark, but critics say there are dangers posed by synthetic organisms.
Craig Venter has been leading the team in Maryland USA.
He and his colleagues are already collaborating with pharmaceutical and fuel companies to design and develop chromosomes for bacteria that could produce useful fuels and new vaccines. He and his colleagues had previously made a synthetic bacterial genome, and transplanted the genome of one bacterium into another. Now, the scientists have put both methods together, to create what they call a “synthetic cell”, although only its genome is truly synthetic.
The creation of the new life form, which has been nicknamed ‘Synthia‘, paves the way for customised bugs that could revolutionise healthcare and fuel production, according to its maker. But there are fears that the research, detailed in the journal Science, could be abused to create the ultimate biological weapon, or that one mistake in a lab could lead to millions being wiped out by a plague, in scenes reminiscent of the Will Smith film I Am Legend.
While some hailed the research as ‘a defining moment in the history of biology’, others attacked it as ‘a shot in the dark’, with ‘unparalleled risks’. The team involved have been accused of ‘playing God’ and tampering ‘with the essence of life’. Dr Venter created the lifeform by synthesising a DNA code and injecting it into a single bacteria cell. The cell containing the man-made DNA then grew and divided, creating a hitherto unseen lifeform. Dr Venter, who was instrumental in sequencing the human genome, had previously succeeded in transplanting one bug’s genome – its entire cache of DNA – into another bacterium, effectively changing its species. He has taken this one step further, transplanting not a natural genome but a man-made one. To do this, he read the DNA of Mycoplasma mycoides, a bug that infects goats, and recreated it piece by piece.
The transferred DNA contained around 850 genes – a fraction of the 20,000 or so contained in a human’s genetic blueprint. In future, bacterial ‘factories’ could be set up to manufacture artificial organisms designed for specific tasks such as medicines or producing clean biofuels. The technology could also be harnessed to create environmentally friendly bugs capable of mopping up carbon dioxide or toxic waste.
But the breakthrough, which took 15 years and £27.7million to achieve, opens an ethical Pandora’s box. Ethicists said he is ‘creaking open the most profound door in humanity’s history’ – with unparalleled risks.
Science that is not tempered by morality poses perhaps the greatest threat to the survival of mankind in the coming centuries than anything else. We’ve seen it portrayed multiple different ways in Hollywood movies from The Terminator, I Am Legend, Incredible Hulk and many more. Yet, even as this threat begins to rear its ugly head, many in Evangelicalism have no idea what is occurring in the scientific realm. We need to educate ourselves and articulate a Biblical response to the many ethical dilemmas that will present themselves over the next century. It is our duty as stewards of God’s Creation.