Economist: And man made life
Artificial life, the stuff of dreams and nightmares, has arrived.
TO CREATE life is the prerogative of gods. Deep in the human psyche, whatever the rational pleadings of physics and chemistry, there exists a sense that biology is different, is more than just the sum of atoms moving about and reacting with one another, is somehow infused with a divine spark, a vital essence. It may come as a shock, then, that mere mortals have now made artificial life.
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 (see article). 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.
That ability would prove mankind’s mastery over nature in a way more profound than even the detonation of the first atomic bomb. The bomb, however justified in the context of the second world war, was purely destructive. Biology is about nurturing and growth. Synthetic biology, as the technology that this and myriad less eye-catching advances are ushering in has been dubbed, 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?
On the face of it, then, artificial life looks like a wonderful thing. Yet that is not how many will view the announcement. For them, a better word than “creation” is “tampering”. 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? ...