Should scientists create new life?

/ Source: Special to MSNBC

Should scientists try to create a new life form? That profound question was put on the nation’s agenda when two of the world’s premier geneticists, Craig Venter and Hamilton Smith, announced Thursday that they had received millions of dollars in federal funding to attempt such a project.

In a nutshell, what Venter and Smith propose to do is create a very simple microbe. Some viruses have only 400 or 500 genes. Venter and Smith are going to remove the genes from one such tiny bug, synthesize a new set of genes, drop them into the bug and see if the new instructions will bring the microbe to life. If they do and if the genes are a blueprint that has never existed before in nature then these two scientists can say that they have created the world’s first artificial microbe.

Aside from the glory involved there are some very good reasons to build artificial viruses and bacteria. It would be of enormous importance to know what sequences of DNA put in the right order can make something come “alive”. Such knowledge could one day enable us to make microbes that we could use to prevent pollution, kill other bugs that cause us much misery such as those involved in gonorrhea, malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS, and to make tiny microbes that could provide some immunity against disease.

But there are some reasons to think hard about the wisdom of trying to create new life. Some will worry that it is not our place in the cosmos to create living things. Only god should do that. Others may fear that the creation of new microbes holds the potential for having something escape from the lab that could cause havoc out in the real world. Still others correctly note that this kind of synthetic genomics could be used to make nasty critters that terrorists or evil nations could use against us.

It might be noted, too, that those who can build a bug can also claim ownership over it making it possible that someone might actually try to patent “life” itself!

I don’t think we should fear the creation of new life forms. After all, we have essentially been doing that for many centuries through systematic breeding of animals and plants.

As far as I can determine, no major religion is opposed to the creation of life forms as an act that defies god’s will or places humanity in a role that is inappropriate. Playing god is a common criticism of what scientists do but if you create a life form that can cure disease or feed the world then you won’t find many religious leaders objecting.

And yes, nasty microbes may escape and bad guys could synthesize some pretty nasty critters but what we need here are adequate safeguards and controls. Perhaps not every bit of information about how to make a microbe belongs on the Internet or in a publicly available journal. And if we don’t want anyone to own new life forms then it is well within our power to pass legislation that would prohibit them from doing so.

So, amazing as the idea is of generating new life from scratch I think there is merit in pushing ahead. But if this ship is going to sail we have to get busy making the rules and the safeguards as well as the genes.