New Genesis

by Justin

Mankind may now be capable of executing the greatest and most miraculous act of divinity: creation. From chemical scratch a couple scientists managed to cross the Frankenstein threshold. Maybe. I slipped rapidly from mindblown elation into a sort of cynicism about just how devastating this news is. I’m not a frontlines reporter, so all I can do is read the work of the professionals and then form opinions. Often I rely upon journalists to articulate my own opinions and do the distillation work for me. What does one do, then, when the Atlantic, Guardian, and the Economist frame this revelation so differently? I stumbled upon this first in the Economist:

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. 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.

The article is 100% overwrought – out of control biblical language and a serious flare for the dramatic. Which is cool, actually, because it launched me into a world of imagining nightmare creatures stalking the planet. The Island Closest to Hell made manifest. Passages like this launched my imagination into overdrive:

Innovation works best when it is a game that anyone can play. The more ideas there are, the better the chance some will prosper. Unfortunately and inevitably, some of those ideas will be malicious. And the problem with malicious biological inventions—unlike, say, guns and explosives—is that once released, they can breed by themselves.

Science fiction horror. The only catch was that the genome they built had to be processed by an existing bacteria. To diminish something exceptional: all they really did was write some new software for some old hardware to run. I turned to the Atlantic:

Has man indeed made life? I think not. The replica is indistinguishable in form and function from the original. Were it not for marker tags introduced into the replica DNA, there would be no difference at all. It is as if one were to create a copy of Michelangelo’s David, accurate down to the last crack and imperfection except for the signature, and call it new.

The problem is that I can’t argue either side. William Haseltine, who wrote the above bit, goes on to talk about how this a slight increase in degree and nothing more. The era of genetic engineering, of gene splicing and gene manipulation has long been changing the nature of biology. If, in theory, scientists make a peach-tasting pear grow on an apple tree, that seems to be a remarkable act of creation. If a stem cell can grow into an adult human liver, that too is a kind of genesis.

I want to know about why this may or may not be a huge deal. I think that means finding the projections of what this advance in science may produce in 10, 20, 30 years. When does the science move out of journals and laboratories and into day-to-day influence? How soon until governments can unleash synthetic biology on the battlefield? I’m only kind of kidding. A ‘Random Scientist’ commented on the Economist article with the following:

Organisms in biological warfare need not be stable or successful. They only need to wreak havoc for a month or a year and die out.

Got ’em. A similar controversy flared up when stem cell research became pop science and traditionalists (the fearful and mostly religious) butted heads with the visionary (men of science). The tragic outcome of ignorant opposition was Bush-era legislation weakening the opportunity for research and the creation of a decades-thick stumbling block for medical progress. My hope is that we can err on the side of negligence and get our transhumanism on.

Forgive me if the title of this post led anyone to believe that I’d be covering this magnificent planet.