There are moments in our history that have made us rethink where we stand in the Universe, how we perceive ourselves in this almost infinite expanse of mostly unknown things, and how we asses our life and its value.
Men of science such as Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin and Einstein have all presented us with questions and possibilities that changed the way we think in a momentous way. Their revolutionary theories and discoveries have become the laws that govern our understanding of the Universe and ourselves.
Like all science, the questions a scientific answer drags along with it, are far more complex than the original inquiry. Life and its beginning are, by far, the most controversial, most intriguing, most far-fetched and red-taped issue in all of science and philosophy. Many of us believe we will understand how the Universe will come to be, yet very few believe the Origins of Life are accessible to us, that life is far too complex and the idea of life coming from non-living substances, is simply outrageous.
Well, not anymore.
Scientists have successfully synthesized a 1-million base pair, 100% synthetic genome, designed on a computer, and inserted it into a hollowed-out bacterium. The single-cell organism was ‘reactivated’ and it was able to function according to the genome’s instructions, and reproduce this synthetic genetic material, just like a ‘natural’ life form would have.
The fallout of this will be massive, in fact, it has already stirred interest in the United States government, with President Barrack Obama requesting the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues look further into the issue, and provide a comprehensive assessment of this new breakthrough’s implications. The US House Energy and Commerce Committee has also scheduled a hearing next week to discuss both the positive and negative aspects of this monumental leap in bioengineering.
Some will consider this solid evidence that life can be created from simple chemicals under certain conditions. Yet, others are quick to undermine this organism, who’s parent is a computer. Skeptics point out only the genome was synthetic, and that the cellular machinery was provided by the hollowed-out bacterium. In the past couple of years, scientists have successfully assembled ribosomes from a soup of inorganic molecules as well. The fact that genetic material, as well as the machinery to replicate, transcribe and translate it can now be synthesized from a non-living precursor, is proof enough that in a matter of short time, and some heavy funding, the bioengineering of custom-made organisms is a soon-to-be-realized reality.
Time is closely linked to, of course, money. And, fortunately, this project has quite a lot of dollars. In fact, Synthetic Genomics Inc. has a contract with ExxonMobil for as much as half a billion dollars to finance research into creating biofuel-producing algae.
However, such a potent, promising and controversial technology carries as much threats and potential problems with it as it does benefit and progress. This technology could be used to engineer biological weapons and might produce organisms harmful to the environment, causing unforeseeable damage to natural ecosystems. Then again, this technology can be utilized to perfect vaccines and refine medicines, and help fight pollution and conserve what’s left of our environment.
This also begs the question of whether it is ethical to not just manipulate existing organisms, but create totally new ones. For me, I see this as amazing and a moment that will go down in history with the likes of Darwin and Copernicus. The question is, will Craig Venter, the man behind this technology, be given due credit, or will he be persecuted by those who still refuse to put humanity’s ego aside and focus on the facts.
More will be written on this after the House and the Presidential committees have concluded their inquiries into this revolutionary breakthrough.