May 21, 2010

Artificial life is simply not another breaking news. It has grave implications for humanity.

This is not simply another Breaking News. The media (not only in India, but globally) has failed to understand the grave implications it has in store for the future of humanity. That is why the news is buried in the inside pages. Also, because it has no immediate threat to the Wall Street, the media has no reason to question.

I am talking of the news report which goes something like this as far as the headlines are concerned: "Pioneering geneticist creates synthetic life." Craig Venter and his team pave way for designer organisms, says one newspaper. This is the first time that someone is trying to play God. In fact, God now has competition.

Craig Venter has created the first synthetic cell controlled by a synthetic genome. "This is the first synthetic cell that's been made," said lead researcher Craig Venter. "We call it synthetic because the cell is totally derived from a synthetic chromosome, made with four bottles of chemicals on a chemical synthesiser, starting with information in a computer."

The way genetic engineering is now becoming an out-of-garage activity, and in many colleges/universities students are involved in various permutation and combinations to move genes across microbes, I am surely worried. I am sure millions across the globe would be equally worried. Society cannot view this breakthrough lightly. We cannot let this pass as yet another development in genetic engineering. It has grave and frightening implications. People must force the governments to wake up, and analyse the threat.

I am aware that some would feel excited. After all, it heralds the dawn of a new era with possibilities of organisms providing human spare parts and so on. As I have said often, the path to hell is paved with good intentions. This path surely leads us to hell, with no speed breakers on the way.

It is the beginning of a Grave New World.

The day is not far away when we will have a parallel form of life, another living race amidst us. Whenever man has tried to imbibe genetic engineering from Gods, as is evident from Ramayana and Mahabharta, the two great Indian epics, he has only turned into an evil force.

The day is also not far away when biological warfare will acquire a new meaning, with human, animal and bacterial clones and chimeras roaming the planet. The latest version of Avtar will be a reflection of the more deadly and sinister forms that synthetic life can create. This time, the creator of the world, the ultimate power (if religious scriptures are to be believed) will not come down on the Earth to get rid of this evil force.

I am not a religious person. But at the same time I do not support science and technology to remain outside the control of the society. We cannot allow science to be left to the inside of the board rooms of the corporates. Few people sitting in a board room cannot be left to decide what is good for us. It has gone on for long, and the world is facing the negative consequences through global warming. Synthetic life is a far too serious a threat, and no greenhouse accord can reverse the deadly fallout.

It is high time we woke up, and be counted.

Pioneering geneticist creates synthetic life

Ian Sample

Craig Venter & team pave way for designer organisms

U.S. geneticist Craig Venter and his team have built the genome of a bacterium from scratch and incorporated it into a cell to make what they call the world's first synthetic life form in a landmark experiment that paves the way for designer organisms that are built rather than evolved.

The controversial feat, which has occupied 20 scientists for more than 10 years at an estimated cost of $40 million, was described by one researcher as “a defining moment in biology.”

Dr. Venter said the achievement heralded the dawn of a new era in which new life was made to benefit humanity, starting with bacteria that churn out bio-fuels, soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and even manufacture vaccines.


However critics, including some religious groups, condemned the work, with one organisation warning that artificial organisms could escape into the wild and cause environmental havoc or be turned into biological weapons. Others said Dr. Venter was playing God.

The new organism is based on an existing bacterium that causes ‘mastitis' in goats, but at its core is an entirely synthetic genome that was constructed from chemicals in the laboratory.

The single-celled organism has four “watermarks” written into its DNA to identify it as synthetic and help trace its descendants back to their creator, should they go astray.

“We were ecstatic when the cells booted up with all the watermarks in place,” Dr. Venter told the Guardian. “It's a living species now, part of our planet's inventory of life.” Dr. Venter's team developed a new code based on the four letters of the genetic code, G, T, C and A, that allowed them to draw on the whole alphabet, numbers and punctuation marks to write the watermarks. Anyone who cracks the code is invited to email an address written into the DNA.

The research was reported online on Thursday in the journal Science.

“This is an important step both scientifically and philosophically,” Dr. Venter told the journal. “It has certainly changed my views of definitions of life and how life works.” The team now plans to use the synthetic organism to work out the minimum number of genes needed for life to exist. From this, new micro-organisms could be made by bolting on additional genes to produce useful chemicals, break down pollutants, or produce proteins for use in vaccines.

Julian Savulescu, professor of practical ethics at Oxford University, said: “Venter is creaking open the most profound door in humanity's history, potentially peeking into its destiny. He is not merely copying life artificially ... or modifying it radically by genetic engineering. He is going towards the role of a god: creating artificial life that could never have existed naturally.” This is “a defining moment in the history of biology and biotechnology,” Mark Bedau, a philosopher at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, told Science.

Controversial figure

Dr. Venter became a controversial figure in the 1990s when he pitted his former company, Celera Genomics, against the publicly funded effort to sequence the human genome, the Human Genome Project. Dr. Venter had already applied for patents on more than 300 genes, raising concerns that the company might claim intellectual rights to the building blocks of life. — Guardian News & Media 2010

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