Earlier this year news broke that a team of American scientists led by geneticist Dr Craig Venter had created the world’s first synthetic life form. Venter hailed the momentous development as the dawn of a new scientific era in which new life could be manufactured for the benefit of humankind, with designer bacteria that will suck up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, churn out biofuels and produce life-saving vaccines.
At a cost of $40m, 20 scientists spent 10 years developing the organism, which is based on a bacterium that causes mastitis in goats. The revolutionary innovation lies in the new organism’s core – a completely new genome built by the scientists in the laboratory from chemicals. The single celled synthetic bacterium, named “Synthia” by its developers, has the capacity to reproduce itself – one of the defining characteristics of life. Should any of its descendants migrate, four “watermarks” coded into its DNA will help track them back to their creator.
Venter’s team immediately announced plans to discover the minimum number of genes necessary for life to be viable. With this mystery solved the door opens to developing new microorganisms capable of all manner of functions, such as producing proteins for use in vaccines or breaking down pollutants, simply by bolting on additional genes.
The Venter team’s work did not attract favourable comments from all quarters however. Some voices, such as Oxford University’s professor of practical ethics, Julian Savulescu, immediately raised the accusation that the geneticist was “playing God” by modifying, rather than simply copying, the code for life. “Synthia” is an organism that could never have existed naturally, which in Savulescu’s view is an act of scientific hubris equivalent to Divine pretensions.
These accusations tend to accompany just about every new biological innovation, however, and if heeded could well bring research and development to an effective standstill. Genetic engineering and cloning have both been described as playing God, despite the fact that, in spite of risks, they promise to deliver huge swathes of humanity from starvation and genetically-induced suffering. Fertility treatments and stem cell research have been similarly lampooned, in condemnations which make their proponents sound as though they believe the Almighty would prefer people to live in preventable misery and anguish rather than be helped to lead fuller and less painful lives by scientific discovery. All technological innovation brings hazards as well as benefits, but if we abandoned technology, we would never have had the wheel, grown crops from seeds or tamed fire, let alone have developed organ transplant surgery or modern pharmaceuticals.
One other criticism, however, does appear to have some ethical merit. Dr Venter provoked controversy in the 1990s, when he placed his older company, Celera Genomics, against the publicly funded Human Genome Project, applying for patents on hundreds of genes. With the advent of Synthia, his new company immediately applied for patents on important areas of the work, a move that drew criticism from Nobel Prize winning scientist, Professor John Sulston. Sulston has long been opposed to the commercialisation of scientific research, and believes that Venter is trying to bring big areas of future genetic research under his own private commercial control.