mw447c.jpg Matt Wuerker

Life Made to Order

The recent announcement by Craig Venter that his team had created a synthetic form of life elicited predictable accusations of "playing God," as well as concerns about the very real risks connected with the release of new or genetically modified organisms. But those risks seem decisively outweighed by the hope that synthetic biology offers.

MELBOURNE – In the sixteenth century, the alchemist Paracelsus offered a recipe for creating a living being that began with putting sperm into putrefying “venter equinus.” This is usually translated as “horse manure,” but the Latin “venter” means abdomen or uterus.

So occultists now will no doubt have a fine time with the fact that Craig Venter was the driving force behind the team of scientists that last month announced that they had created a synthetic form of life: a bacterium with a genome designed and created from chemicals in a laboratory.

The new bacterium, nicknamed “Synthia,” replicates and produces proteins. By any reasonable definition, it is alive. Although it is very similar to a natural bacterium from which it was largely copied, the creators put distinctive strings of DNA into its genome to prove that it is not a natural object. These strings spell out, in code, a Web site address, the names of the researchers, and apt quotations, such as Richard Feynman’s “What I cannot build, I cannot understand.”

For some years now, synthetic biology has been looming as the next big issue in bioethics. The scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute expected to be told that they were “playing God,” and they were not disappointed. Yes, if one believes that life was created by God, then this comes as close to “playing God” as humans have come, so far.

Well-known University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Art Caplan says that the achievement ranks as a discovery of historic significance, because it “would seem to extinguish the argument that life requires a special force or power to exist.” Asked about the significance of what the team had done, Venter described it as bringing about “a giant philosophical change in how we view life.”

Others have pointed out that, although the team produced a synthetic genome, they put it into a cell from another bacterium, replacing that cell’s DNA. We have yet to build a living organism entirely from bottles of chemicals, so anyone who believes in a “life force” that only a divine being could imbue into inert matter will no doubt continue to believe in it.

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At a more practical level, Venter said, the team’s work has produced “a very powerful set of tools” for redesigning life. He has been criticized for the fact that the research was funded by Synthetic Genomics, a company that he cofounded, which will hold the intellectual property rights resulting from the research – and has already filed for 13 patents related to it. But the work has taken 20 scientists a decade to complete, at an estimated cost of $40 million, and commercial investors are an obvious source for such funds.

Others object that living things should not be patented. That battle was lost in 1980, when the United States Supreme Court decided that a genetically modified micro-organism designed to clean up oil spills could be patented. (Obviously, given the damage caused by the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico, there is still some work to be done on that particular organism.)

Patenting life was taken a step further in 1984, when Harvard University successfully applied for a patent on its “oncomouse,” a laboratory mouse specifically designed to get cancer easily, so that it would be more useful as a research tool. There are good grounds for objecting to turning a sentient being into a patented laboratory tool, but it is not so easy to see why patent law should not cover newly designed bacteria or algae, which can feel nothing and may be as useful as any other invention.

Indeed, Synthia’s very existence challenges the distinction between living and artificial that underlies much of the opposition to “patenting life” – though pointing this out is not to approve the granting of sweeping patents that prevent other scientists from making their own discoveries in this important new field.

As for the likely usefulness of synthetic bacteria, the fact that Synthia’s birth had to compete for headlines with news of the world’s worst-ever oil spill made the point more effectively than any public-relations effort could have done. One day, we may be able to design bacteria that can quickly, safely, and effectively clean up oil spills. And, according to Venter, if his team’s new technology had been available last year, it would have been possible to produce a vaccine to protect ourselves against H1N1 influenza in 24 hours, rather than several weeks.

The most exciting prospect held out by Venter, however, is a form of algae that can absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and use it to create diesel fuel or gasoline. Synthetic Genomics has a $600 million agreement with ExxonMobil to obtain fuel from algae.

Obviously, the release of any synthetic organism must be carefully regulated, just like the release of any genetically modified organism. But any risk must be weighed against other grave threats that we face. For example, international climate-change negotiations appear to have reached an impasse, and public skepticism about global warming is rising, even as the scientific evidence continues to show that it is real and will endanger the lives of billions of people.

In such circumstances, the admittedly very real risks of synthetic biology seem decisively outweighed by the hope that it may enable us to avert a looming environmental catastrophe.