Friday, May 21, 2010

Artificial life – has it happened, and if so, then what?

Today the news is that Craig Venter claims to have made a synthetic cell.  Already this is being disputed.  Whether he really has, might be a matter of definition. Even he doesn’t claim to have made "artificial life". Story in New Scientist. 
And as usual excellent discussion on the Guardian’s Science Weekly podcast. They’ve won an award recently and quite right too.
Is it an astonishing scientific achievement, on a par with the other defining moments in science over the last five hundred years?   Some say yes - some say within a century, this discovery will be at the root of a total overhaul of how we perceive life and ourselves. Someone compared it to the 1903 Wright flyer. If that’s a valid comparison, compare the Space Shuttle to the Wright brothers plane, less than 80 years later.
Could artificial life escape into the wild by accident or design, and destroy Earth’s ecosystem?  If so would that be a reason to ban research?   If so what else should be banned?
Are remarks about Frankenstein, playing God, tampering with Nature, meddling with the unknown, called for?  Not at all. The most disturbing aspect is that the discovery should be made by Venter and his team, who are committed to the financial exploitation of any such discovery, as their earlier attempts at the patenting of naturally occurring genes have shown.
I used to align myself firmly with the anti-genetic engineering lobby. And this “synthetic cell” is genetic engineering with knobs on.  But having listened in to scientists discussing genetic engineering, I now recognise that what I was actually objecting to was genetic engineering was being used for the enrichment of Monsanto and the impoverishment of Indian farmers.
As a postscript, whilst this may not be the creation of artificial life, if it’s a step in that direction, is it also a step in the direction of understanding how Nature did it?  Whether the genesis of life is an easy or a hard trick?  Towards answering the question: how probable is it that life has evolved many times independently in the universe, as opposed to only once?

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