In a most extraordinary story, London’s Guardian newspaper is reporting that genomics pioneer Craig Venter claims to have created “the first new artificial life form on Earth,” as the Guardian puts it.
The Guardian can reveal that a team of 20 top scientists assembled by Mr Venter, led by the Nobel laureate Hamilton Smith, has already constructed a synthetic chromosome, a feat of virtuoso bio-engineering never previously achieved. Using lab-made chemicals, they have painstakingly stitched together a chromosome that is 381 genes long and contains 580,000 base pairs of genetic code.
The new life form is based on the bacterium Mycoplasma genitalium (which has the smallest DNA complement of any free-living lifeform), and Venter’s team has named it Mycoplasma laboratorium. The DNA code is being transplanted into an existing cell, where Venter told the Guardian it will take control of the cell’s reproductive and molecular machinery.
Venter has applied for a patent on the new life form.
It could turn out to be the most significant news of the yet-young 21st century. It’s hard to imagine a single scientific discovery with as many implications for humanity, short of discovery of intelligent life beyond earth.
And it’s hard not to have two simultaneous reactions to this breakthrough: it is thrilling and fearsome.
In just this one, brief Guardian story, Venter points out the range of ways an ability to create artificial life could help humans and the Earth: the techniques could be used to create alternative fuels; they could be used to create life forms that suck up excess carbon dioxide and thus end the dangers from global warming. They could be the source of all kinds of medical innovations, starting with new medicines. Artificial life forms could also be the basis of bio-weapons that might prove both devastating and impossible to defeat.
But we have barely assembled the ethical structures to manage pharmaceuticals. We haven’t quite figured out what to do with the information revealed in our own genes. Heck, we don’t have a good handle on the ethics of cosmetic surgery.
So here’s hoping that, along with with this incredible scientific breakthrough — if it turns out to be both verifiable and reproducible — Venter immediately uses his credibility and connections to call for convening a panel of thoughtful scientists and ethicists and lay-people to lay out an ethical framework for managing the artificial life we create.
What “rights” will artificial life forms have, for instance? What does it mean to “own” life, as patenting it suggests? Will we need a PETAL organization — “people for the ethical treatment of artificial lifeforms?”