Should mere humans be 'playing God'?

Gareth Jones looks at the ethics of the recent creation of a synthetic chromosome at the J Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, USA.

The creation of artificial life is the stuff of science fiction.

If anything can be described as "playing God" this surely is it.

Pandora's box has been opened, and the end result could be catastrophes over which we have no control.

Isn't this territory that should forever remain beyond the reach of mere humans? Thoughts along these lines will have been stirred by the announcement that Craig Venter and colleagues have produced a landmark paper in the realm of what is known as synthetic biology.

The essence of their work is that they have manufactured a synthetic (what some describe as an artificial) chromosome and introduced this into a bacterial cell from which its own chromosome had been removed.

The major breakthrough is that these bacteria then replicated normally with this new set of artificially created genetic instructions.

More technically, the Venter group has demonstrated that a single genome of around 1 million base pairs can be chemically synthesised and assembled correctly and transplanted into a recipient cell of another species.

This transplanted synthetic DNA can be "booted up" to operate the functions of the new recipient cell.

With the passage of time this recipient cell will take on some of the characteristics of the newly transplanted genome.

Strictly speaking, this is not quite an artificial cell, but its novel characteristics are striking.

This is an illustration of the burgeoning ability to harness biology for industrial purposes, a development made possible by the vast increase in computing power.

At present, this is no more than a proof of concept, but in the foreseeable future its potential lies in producing pharmaceuticals, an array of drugs, biofuels, vaccines and compounds capable of neutralising contaminants such as oil spills.

The immediate prospects are commercially driven.

For instance, Dr Venter has already entered into a deal with ExxonMobil to create algae that would be able to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and subsequently convert it into fuel.

These are the good ends, the ones inevitably touted by those behind these developments.

But even Dr Venter has described the work as a mixture of a giant step and a baby step; a giant step because what was only hypothetical has been shown to be possible; a baby step because there is a very long way to go before new medicines or new sources of food will result.

It is all too easy to rush into doomsday scenarios, dismissing it as "playing God", complaining that it gives human beings total control over nature, and that we no longer have need of God or of any religious aspirations.

Whatever the validity or otherwise of any such concerns, we need to stand back and ponder some fundamental considerations.

The first is that it brings more of life under human control.

This is far from total control, but it has radical possibilities.

Creating synthetic life that could never have existed naturally is a two-edged sword.

It is dual-use technology, to use Dr Venter's expression.

Its potential for ill may be just as powerful as that for good.

There will be unintended side-effects that could result from placing a living organism in an environment in which it has not evolved.

It could run amok, displacing existing organisms and harming others.

Unfortunately, we tend to be very poor at predicting unintended consequences like these.

Stringent regulations will be required to ensure that synthetic organisms do not escape into the environment and cause damage of immense proportions.

Alongside these unintended consequences have to be placed intended ones, those that could be brought about by groups or countries with evil intentions.

Technology may be abused for evil purposes, as in the manufacture of biological weaponry by a state or terrorist organisation.

Once again, it would be comforting if we could discount such possibilities, but that is not possible.

But what of the grandiose possibilities? Will we end up by creating synthetic people? The inevitable concern is whether what is being carried out at the level of bacteria will lead to the creation of living beings with capacities and natures that would not otherwise have existed.

Anything even remotely like this is light years removed from where the technology is at present.

We cannot jump from what has just been reported to replicating this type of work on far larger and more complex genomes.

In other words, we need to distinguish between the realistic pharmaceutical applications (with all their pros and cons), and infinitely more far-flung applications that may never eventuate.

In my view we have to be prepared to live with this mixture of good and evil.

While some may argue that the only way of avoiding this tension is to place a moratorium on all such work, I do not agree.

Not only would it be unrealistic, it would also close the door to an array of positive developments in the biomedical arena.

Humans have been increasing their control over the environment and themselves throughout human history and this represents a further step in the same direction.

As with all previous developments, the positives and negatives are uncomfortably intertwined.

There needs to be intense public discussion over what may be some of the implications of developments in this area.

However, that debate needs to be realistic, and should not become submerged in grandiose hypothetical scenarios that will probably never come to pass.

- Gareth Jones is director of the Bioethics Centre and a professor of anatomy and structural biology at the University of Otago.


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