Issue Report: Artificial life

“A man made life.” The Economist. May 20th, 2010: “Craig Venter and Hamilton Smith, the two American biologists who unravelled the first DNA sequence of a living organism (a bacterium) in 1995, have made a bacterium that has an artificial genome—creating a living creature with no ancestor. Pedants may quibble that only the DNA of the new beast was actually manufactured in a laboratory; the researchers had to use the shell of an existing bug to get that DNA to do its stuff. Nevertheless, a Rubicon has been crossed. It is now possible to conceive of a world in which new bacteria (and eventually, new animals and plants) are designed on a computer and then grown to order.” Dr. Craig Venter, who has been working on synthetic life for a decade, told The New York Times: “It is our final triumph. This is the first synthetic cell. It’s the first time we have started with information in a computer, used four bottles of chemicals to write up a million letters of DNA software, and actually got it to boot up in a living organism. […] Though this is a baby step, it enables a change in philosophy, a change in thinking, a change in the tools we have. This cell we’ve made is not a miracle cell that’s useful for anything, it is a proof of concept. But the proof of concept was key, otherwise it is just speculation and science fiction. This takes us across that border, into a new world.”[1] President Obama responded by tasking the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues with considering the issue and saying in late May of 2010: “It is vital that we as a society consider, in a thoughtful manner, the significance of this kind of scientific development,” and that the Commission should consider the measures that societies “should take to ensure that America reaps the benefits of this developing field of science while identifying appropriate ethical boundaries and minimizing identified risks.”[2]

Benefits: Are the benefits of artificial life significant?

Artificial life hold major benefits for humanity

"And man made life." The Economist. May 20th 2010

“Synthetic biology […] promises much. In the short term it promises better drugs, less thirsty crops (see article), greener fuels and even a rejuvenated chemical industry. In the longer term who knows what marvels could be designed and grown?”

Synthetic biology can help fight climate change and pollution

Rep. Henry Waxman (Democrat, California), Chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said in a May 2010 hearing on the topic of synthetic biology: “Synthetic biology also has the potential to reduce our dependence on oil and to address climate change. Research is underway to develop microbes that would produce oil, giving us a renewable fuel that could be used interchangeably with gasoline without creating more global warming pollution. Research could also lead to oil-eating microbes, an application that, as the Gulf spill unfortunately demonstrates, would be extremely useful.”[3]

Artificial life can be tailored for specific needs

Daniel Gibson, one of the lead scientists creating the first man-made life at the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland said, “With this approach we now have the ability to start with a DNA sequence and design organisms exactly like we want.”[4]

General statements in favor of artificial life

Pamela Silver, a systems biologist at Harvard Medical School: “I hope the day comes when making genomes is something everyone can do.”[5]

Synthetic life driven by profits more than benefits to humanity

Jim Thomas, a member of the Etc Group: “Synthetic biology is a high-risk, profit-driven field, building organisms out of parts that are still poorly understood.”[6]

Devinder Sharma. "Artificial Life Is Simply Not Another Breaking News, It Has Grave Implications for Humanity." Ground Reality. May 23rd, 2010:

“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.”

Humans engineered organisms for centuries; synthetic life adds little.

In a BBC interview, the Nobel prize-winning geneticist Paul Nurse cast doubt on whether synthetic life will add much to current capabilities, pointing out that we already have powerful means to engineer organisms.[7]

Risks: Can the risks be contained?

Potential benefits of synthetic life far outweigh risks

Craig Venter said to the BBC in May of 2010: “Most people are in agreement that there is a slight increase in the potential for harm but there’s an exponential increase in the potential benefit to society.”[8]

Synthetic organisms unlikely to survive out of lab

Ken MacLeod. "Humanity will thank heaven that this creator of synthetic life is playing God." Guardian. May 21, 2010

“Some conjure a scenario where synthetic organisms to which there’s “no natural resistance” run amok. This seems misconceived. The biosphere comes up with natural resistance to entirely new organisms every day. Unless deliberately designed for survival, synthetic organisms that are released or escape into the wild will shortly be another organism’s lunch.”

Synthetic organisms no greater risk than natural ones

David Ropeik. "Synthetic life: Perhaps all we have to fear is fear itself?" Guardian. May 26th, 2010

“People are generally more fearful of human-made risks, and less so of natural ones. Nature can indeed be red in tooth and claw, but new versions of plants, animals and microorganisms that evolve via Darwinian evolution don’t upset us half as much as hybridisation by genetic engineering. That a bacterium can spontaneously evolve into a new version that can resist our arsenal of antibiotics doesn’t seem to bother people as much as the possibility that we can now manufacture such mutants.”

Remote risks should not hold-up synthetic life

Dr. Jon LaPook. "Creating 'Synthetic' Life." Huffington Post. June 3, 2010:

“Nobody knows where it will all lead. You can bet your bottom dollar that not all of it will be good but that’s been true of just about every human advance.”

Synthetic life needs regulation, but should be allowed

John Harris. "Promise and risks from ‘life not as we know it’" Financial Times. May 26, 2010:

“The dangers of making organisms that have never before existed (which already happens every day in biotech laboratories) will always be largely unknowable in advance. This is not a good enough reason to hold back if the expected benefits are significant. But it does mean we need robust regulation and licensing. The message is this: welcome the outstanding science, ensure good regulation in plenty of time and question an international intellectual property regime that can, disastrously, militate against fair access to the fruits of science.”

Man-made life poses unimaginable risks

"And man made life." The Economist. May 20th 2010

“Have scientists got too big for their boots? Will their hubris bring Nemesis in due course? What horrors will come creeping out of the flask on the laboratory bench? […] Such questions are not misplaced—and should give pause even to those, including this newspaper, who normally embrace advances in science with enthusiasm. The new biological science does have the potential to do great harm, as well as good. “Predator” and “disease” are just as much part of the biological vocabulary as “nurturing” and “growth”. But for good or ill it is here. Creating life is no longer the prerogative of gods.”

Risks of artificial life could outweigh benefits

Fiona Macrae. "Scientist accused of playing God." Daily Mail. June 3rd, 2010

“The potential is huge – but so are the dangers. An artificial species, created in the lab, might not ‘obey the rules’ of the natural world – after all, every living being on Earth has evolved over three billion years, when a myriad of competing species have had to share the same increasingly crowded environment. […] It is possible to imagine a synthetic microbe going on the rampage, perhaps wiping out all the world’s crop plants or even humanity itself.”

Artificial life risky if released into environment

Laura Hake, professor of biology, Boston College, Jesuit Research University, said on BBC: “I think that the synthetic cell that has just been created is a very exciting basic science breakthrough. I have concerns though that there will be a rush to release it into a natural environment. […] There are many disturbing examples of other types of artificial constructions, like GEO crops and over-use of pesticides, that are leading to very significant problems in the balance that needs to be maintained in our ecosystem – for maintaining a healthy planet.”[9]

Regulation cannot contain great unknowns of synthetic biology.

Many things cannot be determined nor regulated regarding synthetic biology. The effects of certain microbes and the possibility of bio-hackers and bio-terrorists are things regulations cannot necessarily contain.

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