Friday, May 21, 2010

Fake life! Starting out, but not starting over

Frankenstein, move over!
Sooner or later it would be claimed that life had been created in the proverbial test tube, and a forthcoming article in Science (here's one news report, and the blurb in Science, from which the image here is taken) makes an expected start in this direction.

Craig Venter has synthesized a bacterial genome from scratch, so to speak, in the sense of taking extensive studies on the genes bacteria really need, stringing them together, and inserting them into a genetically empty bacterial cell. The resulting creature--surely there'll be a 'droid' kind of Sci-Fi name for it--behaved as its genes had been expected to dictate. We're sure that Madison Ave and Hollywood, our guardians of the truth, are already at work.

This is a high technological achievement, that confirms various ideas that were already well established. It is not a conceptual advance in that sense. But it could truly suggest that we're starting out on an open-ended venture in genetic engineering of microbial species. Many problems that range from ecology to medicine to agriculture could be the beneficiaries.

But we should be careful not to let any hype-engines distort what has actually been achieved. This is not life starting over! This is creating life, but only creating it after it has evolved for 4 billion years. That's because only after that time have we got cells to work with and genes to screen to see what's needed. And what's needed is needed because of those 4 billion years of evolution. So this has nothing to do with the origin of life, and is not inventing life in some fundamentally new form.

Nonetheless, if this approach is flexible, it will allow cellular robots to be constructed to ad hoc purposes. The news story quotes the usual concerns about the potential dangers. What if these things escape from the lab and get out into the real world? Will they out-do anything Japanese horror films can cook up?

Nobody knows, of course, but at least, previous similar concerns over recombinant DNA did not materialize. Probably much more likely than an unintentional escape are intentional military releases. Probably various militaries are going to be looking intently at these results. Intentionally constructed bad bugs could be devastating, and nothing in human life suggests that it's unimaginable that they'll be produced. Could indefinite constraint exist, as it has--to date--since WWII with atomic weapons? Or are the genii, including the nuclear weapons genie, once out of the bottle inevitably uncontrollable?

At least, at this stage one can think of many positive possible uses of truly engineerable bacteria, and whatever else is to follow (like doing the same with more complex diploid cells).

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