On May 20, J. Craig Venter announced that he and his team have successfully created “the first self-replicating species we’ve had on the planet whose parent is a computer.”
The announcement was followed by a flurry of sensationalist headlines. The New York Times led with “Synthetic Bacterial Genome Takes Over a Cell” while the Wall Street Journal proclaimed “Scientists Create Synthetic Organism.” My favorite came from Fox News, which announced “Scientists Create Synthetic Life in Lab.”
The scientific community immediately affirmed its approval of the advancement, many echoing Venter and proclaiming it the dawn of a new industrial revolution. Arthur Caplan, the esteemed bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, called Venter’s accomplishment “one of the most important scientific achievements in the history of mankind.”
While no one will deny that this new cell is a marvel of modern biology, not all are happy. Venter has been accused of playing God and disregarding the possible disaster that could come from this type of grand experiment.
In a confused environment – filled with optimists predicting a future utopia void of disease, and alarmists who only see Blade Runners hunting down fugitive replicas – we need to stop, step back and take stock of this advancement.
Christian ethicists need to ask three questions: First, what did Venter and his team actually do in their lab? Second, what might scientists be able to do with this new technology? Third, how might the emergence of synthetic biology affect society and the environment?
We need to set aside Venter’s overly dramatic vocabulary and focus on what was actually done in their labs. In short, Venter’s team was able to pull together over a decade worth of research and replace the DNA of one bacterial cell with a synthesized copy of the DNA of another bacterial cell.
No one who has closely watched the work of Venter should be surprised by this. In the past decade, his team has been able to synthesize DNA, they have developed a virus with a synthesized genome, and they have swapped the DNA of one type of cell with another. Last month’s announcement was the logical conclusion of these previously established technologies.
Therefore, it is not proper to proclaim that Venter’s group has created life. They have simply synthesized a copy of an existing genome and imported it into a hollowed-out cell membrane. In essence, Venter was playing with Lego blocks to make a new structure, but he did not make the Legos from scratch. Because he did not develop the basic building block, he has not created something new and definitely not created it ex nihilo.
As we understand what Venter was able to do, we are able to rationally talk about the contributions that this technology might have for modern society. According to Venter, this technology has the possibility of developing simple organisms that are able to perform preprogrammed tasks. One example is the development of a bacterium that is able to convert sea algae into biofuels.
With a little imagination, we can dream of bacteria that are able to convert unused cellulose material into ethanol thus making it a financially viable replacement to petroleum. Those in the Gulf Coast region probably can foresee the development of organisms that can consume oil in the event of a spill.
In addition to the environmental advantages, the new technology has the potential to aid in the development of future vaccines. Instead of taking four to six months to develop a seasonal flu vaccine, it might be possible to develop one with synthesized genetic material in a few weeks. The possibilities are endless.
Last, we need a serious discussion about the possible consequences of this new technology. While it is breathtaking to think about the advantages listed above, we must make ourselves aware of the misuse of these potential advances. Before using such a technology to help fight environmental disaster, we must also think about the effect that a synthetic organism might have upon the planet.
Will the use of such an organism only add more pollutants to an already contaminated environment? Just like the introduction of foreign species to a new ecosystem, these synthetic organisms might overwhelm or devastate a fragile environment. In addition to ecological concern, synthetic bacteria could possibly be used to develop new bioweapons.
Synthetic biology is similar to the development of nuclear power. The power it possesses can bring a better life, but it can also bring unimaginable devastation. This possibility is the reason that President Obama ordered the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to review the benefits and risks of this technology only days following Venter’s announcement.
As we step back to get a broader perspective of this new and emerging movement in science, ethicists and Christian activists need to keep the issue in perspective. We must not let sensationalism impact our collective voice. In addition, we must begin to talk and act. For too long, we have permitted science and technology to get ahead of ethical reflection, and our prophetic voice has been unheard. We as Christians need to engage the scientific community and not hide ourselves from these difficult questions.
If we wait to voice our concern, it will be too late. While we should stand and marvel with the scientific community, we must also be aware of the impact that scientific advances have upon the environment, society and our own understanding of ourselves.
Monty M. Self is the oncology chaplain at Baptist Health Medical Center – Little Rock and an adjunct instructor of ethics at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.