Exactly a year ago scientists at Craig Venter Institute in Maryland and and San Diego California, reported the birth of the first synthetic cell. Does it really constitute a leap in our understanding of how life was created in the first place? Or any significant breakthrough in our quest for creation of new life on our planet ?
The cell was created in the laboratory by stitching together genes of the bacteria called mycoplasma using recombinant technology as well as artificial sequences created with the help of a computer. The block of genes was then inserted into an empty cell (cytoplasm) of another species of bacteria. Craig Venter described the feat as :
“It’s the first self-replicating cell on the planet that’s parent is a computer.”
In addition Venter’s team added the pieces of genetic as a form of the creative team’s signature : sequences of DNA, which appropriately decoded would spell out quotations famous in science.
Messages in the genome of our first so-called ‘synthetic’ bacteria.
“What I cannot build I cannot understand.” – Richard Feynmann.
“See things not as they are but as they might be,”- From American Prometheus, biography of nuclear physicist Robert J Oppenheimer and father of the atomic bomb.
“To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life,” – James Joyce : ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’.
Craig Venter maintains that this act is not analogous to have created new life, although it could be construed as a synthetic new form of life or even species, the important philosophical question still remains whether any of the complexity at the genetic level that constitutes life, was actually created. The miracle of biology is not how genes function or recombine to produce new species, whether in nature or in the laboratory, but how the hardware that creates life as complex as a human being starting from a relatively simple bacteria came to be in the first place. Ventor’s team have perhaps utilise their $40 million research grant in copy-pasting and rearranging and the code of previously existing lifeform that required billions of years of evolution to come into being in the first place. In that sense, our understanding of the genetic code as well as acquiring the ability to manipulate synthetic life utilising that code is nowhere as miraculous as how the code came to be in first place.
Without any doubt, synthetic bacteria can be used for the benefit of mankind, in areas of production of biofuels, vaccines, producing hormones, cleaning up environmental messes, and so on. But with power comes responsibility, and in the creation of synthetic life in the laboratory, we must remain aware and vigilant that accidental forms that are capable of creating great environmental and biological harm are indeed possible. Biological warfare has been seen in the recent past, and genetic manipulation indeed has the potential of causing great harm in the wrong hands.
Biology in many ways, can be construed as the new alchemy of our era.
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