The thrill of the new, the fear of the new

It seems that we’re getting better at manipulating life, and perhaps eventually at creating new forms of it. From the NY Times:

The genome pioneer J. Craig Venter has taken another step in his quest to create synthetic life, by synthesizing an entire bacterial genome and using it to take over a cell.

Dr. Venter calls the result a “synthetic cell” and is presenting the research as a landmark achievement that will open the way to creating useful microbes from scratch to make products like vaccines and biofuels. At a press conference Thursday, Dr. Venter described the converted cell as “the first self-replicating species we’ve had on the planet whose parent is a computer.”

“This is a philosophical advance as much as a technical advance,” he said, suggesting that the “synthetic cell” raised new questions about the nature of life.

Essentially, as I understand it, Venter’s team invented an artificial genome via a computer program, assembled it with chemical components, and injected it into living bacterial cells — at which point the artificial genome overrode the cells’ original DNA and the bacteria became, in effect, organisms doing the bidding of human-made instructions.

Wow.

There is, quite understandably, a lot of excitement about this. As Andrew Revkin writes, one of Venter’s goals has been “to program organisms that, at large scale, could harvest carbon dioxide and generate hydrocarbons, replacing oil as a fuel and feedstock.” And there’s no limit to what we can wildly imagine human-designed microorganisms (and eventually larger life-forms?) accomplishing: Nanomachines in the blood, perhaps, to repair cell damage, arrest the aging process, and enhance human abilities, like the technology that sustains the immortal cyborgs in Kage Baker’s Company novels. Or microbes sweeping through the atmosphere, sucking up excess greenhouse gases. (I’m reminded of the monoliths in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010 — are they synthetic? are they alive? — multiplying on the surface of Jupiter and converting its gases into heavier elements, triggering its transformation into a second sun. Could such feats of engineering be in the distant human future?)

Also understandably, there are objections and concerns — some, unsurprisingly, from within the scientific community itself, because criticism and dissent are just part of how science rolls. Freeman Dyson offers a backhanded compliment:

This experiment, putting together a living bacterium from synthetic components, is clumsy, tedious, unoriginal. From the point of view of aesthetic and intellectual elegance, it is a bad experiment. But it is nevertheless a big discovery. It opens the way to the new world of synthetic biology. It proves that sequencing and synthesizing DNA give us all the tools we need to create new forms of life. After this, the tools will be improved and simplified, and synthesis of new creatures will become quicker and cheaper. Nobody can predict the new discoveries and surprises that the new technology will bring. I feel sure of only one conclusion. The ability to design and create new forms of life marks a turning-point in the history of our species and our planet.

And while Dyson is nevertheless genuinely excited about the implications of this, others, like Jaydee Hanson of the International Center for Technology Assessment, are even more critical and cautious. Hanson disputes the term “synthetic cell” — “It is the genome that is synthetic, not the cell. Venter’s synthetic DNA is helpless until it is first inserted into a natural, pre-existing cell, with its complex, given (not synthesized) structures” — and plays down the hype around Venter’s announcement:

In many ways, the new effort by the Venter group merely continues the genetic engineering of bacteria, viruses and yeasts that has been being practiced for some thirty years. While difficult to accomplish, the feat carried out by the Venter team—using synthesized DNA to recreate naturally occurring chromosomes and inserting them into another organism’s shell—is merely humans figuring out how to swap DNA between microorganisms, a feat that bacteria have been good at for eons.

Alright, so this isn’t entirely new, but the scope of Venter’s achievement — not only in itself, but as a step toward even more transformational feats of bioengineering in the future — is significant, and carries potentially enormous ethical implications. Hanson calls for regulation:

Synthetic genetically engineered organisms that are intended to be released into the environment or used as drugs need a robust regulatory regime. The Venter Institute has contracts to develop synthetic algae for bio-fuels from Exxon. While the company claims that it will grow these algae in the desert, even deserts flood and synthetic algae could be released into the environment with unforeseen consequences. Synthetic biology techniques have already been used to recreate the 1918 flu virus and other viruses. With the demonstration by Venter’ s team that these techniques can re-create larger organisms, now is the time for a robust regulatory regime to be put in place.

It’s fascinating to think about the philosophical issues surrounding this. In a conversation this morning with the hosts of The Takeaway, BBC science reporter Victoria Gill clarified that while this experiment did not create life from non-life (the host cell is still biological), the fact that the new genome is artificial makes the resulting bacteria a truly “synthetic species” — “It has no genetic heritage other than what was created on this computer and then built in the lab.”

No genetic heritage other than what was created. Holy moly.

I’m still blown away by the fact that all (natural) life on Earth is genetically related — that the cats sleeping on my bed and the birds outside my window and the whales of the deep and the humblest colonies of algae are all my distant cousins, that the genetic instructions at the heart of every living thing all derive from each other: roots and trunks and branches in a single Tree of Life. Have we now created an entirely new tree, a life that is completely foreign to our own? Or rather, not created — not yet — but altered our cousins into complete strangers? What unforeseen consequences — positive or otherwise — would arise from these strangers mingling among us, interacting with the natives, driving the evolution of life in strange new ways? And on a side note: Won’t the coexistence of natural and synthetic life mess up other scientists’ efforts to find an invisible alien biosphere — “Life 2.0” — right here on Earth?

Perhaps synthetic life should be genetically marked to identify it as such, and indeed Venter’s team has done just that, programming “watermark” sequences into the DNA that would enable them to distinguish synthetic genomes from natural ones. More than anything, this reminds me strongly of the microscopic manufacturer’s mark on the artificial snake scale in Blade Runner. Science fiction becomes science fact, again and again and again.

But that’s a problem, isn’t it? Not the scientific advances themselves, but the way we think about them. John Hockenberry at The Takeaway brings up an excellent point: that the metaphors we use to come to grips with these advances — synthetic life, and the ability to breed and control it — are all drawn from technological dystopias: Blade Runner, The Matrix, Frankenstein. We’re constantly worrying that we’re overstepping our bounds, that our good intentions are really paving a path to Hell, that we’re playing God. We’re the sorcerer’s apprentice, our broomsticks in revolt, our spells gone awry. We’re Dresden Codak’s caveman playing with fire, which inevitably rages beyond his control.

And yet, is the kneejerk rejection of untried possibilities really the way to go? Fire is dangerous, but it kept our ancestors warm, drove predators away, cooked and sterilized meat, saved our lives. Vaccines have historically been opposed for a variety of religious and other reasons — they still are — and yet they’re the reason why diphtheria, mumps, measles, rubella, polio, and smallpox aren’t killing us by the millions today. And we’ve been manipulating life to suit our purposes for millennia: breeding horses for strength or speed, cattle for meat, dogs and cats for aesthetic whimsy, hardier grain and vegetables and fruit to withstand disease and feed the hungry millions. “There weren’t any tangerines in the garden of Eden,” as Michael Specter points out, but more to the point:

Vaccines, modern medicine, our ability to feed billions of people, those are triumphs of the scientific method. And to my mind, the scientific method, trying stuff out, seeing if it works, changing it when it doesn’t, is one of the great accomplishments of humanity.

So that’s the good news. Unfortunately, that’s all the good news because there’s some other problems, and they’ve been mentioned many times, and one of them is that, despite all our accomplishments, a billion people go to bed hungry in this world, every day. That number’s rising, and it’s rising really rapidly, and it’s disgraceful. and not only that, we’ve used our imagination to thoroughly trash this globe. Potable water, arable land, rainforests, oil, gas: they’re going away, and they’re going away soon, and unless we innovate our way out of this mess, we’re going away too.

So the question is: Can we do that? I think we can. I think it’s clear that we can make food that will feed billions of people without raping the land that they live on. I think we can power this world with energy that doesn’t also destroy it. I really do believe that, and, no, it ain’t wishful thinking. But here’s the thing that keeps me up at night — one of the things that keeps me up at night. We’ve never needed progress in science more than we need it right now, never, and we’ve also never been in a position to deploy it properly in the way that we can today. We’re on the verge of amazing, amazing events in many fields. And yet, I actually think we’d have to go back hundreds, 300 years, before the Enlightenment, to find a time when we battled progress, when we fought about these things more vigorously, on more fronts, than we do now.

Although we can and must question what we do, and proceed with all due caution and care, I think we must also recognize that science, properly deployed, is what will save us, not head-in-the-sand fearfulness. There’s no question that our technology can go awry; we need look no further than the BP oil spill for proof of that. But courageous innovation, not denialism, is what will eventually solve such problems. So: strict regulations for the production of synthetic life? Absolutely. Banning synthetic life? The answer to that must be arrived at after long questioning, and a clear-eyed examination of our powers, possibilities, and moral obligations. I don’t think I have the answer right now; but whatever it is, it certainly isn’t a sweeping rejection of new scientific achievements.

Curiosity about the unknown has often led to happy discoveries that improved and saved our lives, but a healthy fear of the unknown has its benefits as well. Reckless change will kill us, but so will stagnation in the face of real and worsening problems. Negotiating the line between curiosity and fear is what will keep us alive.

(Images via Wikipedia, Flickfilosopher, and Dresden Codak)

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