Genetic Engineering and cloning have attracted as much attention of Hollywood directors as that of the scientists working on it. Though artificial life remained a distant dream for all of us, we have seen our imagination riding on the wings of creativity as we saw it materializing in many Hollywood movies. Skill, contemporary gloss and twists to these popular themes have produced some mind boggling science fiction thrillers. None of us can forget Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), Multiplicity (1996), Robot (2004), Mighty Aphrodite (1995) and a host of other movies that were inspired by this phenomenon.
But now we can see this fiction turning into reality with scientists having succeeded in creating artificial life in a test tube, in a development which can be termed as the biggest invention of the era and which promises to revolutionize biotechnology. For the first time man made DNA has booted up a cell. Earlier forms of genetic engineering have involved modifying the genome of an existing organism; but researchers at J. Craig Venter Institute have produced an organism whose genome was instead pieced together from chemical building blocks. It means that it is the first synthetic cell that has been made under the stewardship of genome pioneer Craig Venter, who led the research. This is the first self-replicating species that we have had on the planet whose parent is a computer.
Dr J. Craig Venter a genome pioneer in 2001 made headlines for sequencing the human genome. In 2005, Venter founded Synthetic Genomics, a private company with a provocative: to engineer new life forms. In 2008, researchers at J. Craig Venter Institute found out that by stitching together the chemical compounds of a bacterium they were able to make a genome of the bacterium. They were sure that they could boot up a cell which could help them in making biological robots which could be used in making chemicals useful for humans like making high-yielding bio-fuels, and chemicals which could remove toxins from the environment. The researchers, who have spent 15 years and $ 40 million so far, then had to figure out how to transfer this into another bacterium.
It further took a lot of time for the scientists to come up with a method by which they could create a synthetic version of a cell in form of a circular chromosome which is made of a DNA molecule with sequence of more than 1 million ‘base-pairs’ which if stitched together can form shorter fragments useful for creating artificial life on Earth. Finally they used a genome of a microbe called Mycoplasma mycoides. They transferred the synthetic chromosome formed into the genome of this microbe with its inner side removed. At first, nothing happened as there was a single error in the more than 1 million ‘base-pairs’ in the genetic sequence due to which their success was thwarted for many weeks.
Then on a Friday in March 2010, scientists inserted over 1 million base pairs of synthetic DNA into Mycoplasma capricolum cells before leaving for the weekend. When they returned on Monday their cells had bloomed into colonies. This revealed that life is basically the result of an information system which is so dynamic that it changes from second to second.
Thus came into being one of the revolutionizing and maddening discoveries of the era giving man for the first time the chance to play God. Why is the discovery a revolution is because of the fact that the prospects it offers are huge. It means we can now engineer large networks of genes into bacteria which can be used to:
* Make high yielding bio-fuels
* Make useful chemicals which can be used to break the toxins in the environment
thereby being environment friendly
* Create a cell that could suck up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere
* We can also make agents to cure cancer as these agents can be used to detect and
destroy the cancerous cells
* Make proteins for treating diseases
Venter’s company Synthetic Genomics but Exxon has already signed a contract with the institute for $600 million dollars for research into biofuel from algae.
But as is said everything comes with a price. That price that we may have to pay here is the maddening effect of this invention. Already the invention has opened a Pandora’s Box of ethical questions, including concerns that researchers are playing god, tampering with the very essence of life.
Some of the ethical concerns, risks and threats identified are:
* Man is all set to play God as now he has the power to tamper with creating life on Earth
* Biological warfare and terrorism can get a further boost as with the advent of this technology harmful chemicals can be made which can cause mass-level destruction and can even bring life on Earth to an end
* One mistake in a lab could lead to millions being wiped out by a plague, in scenes reminiscent of the Will Smith film I Am Legend
* Challenges the common sense distinction between living things and machines
The speculations made at the moment may seem to be momentary but once we have gone far with this invention it won’t take many potential years for man to misuse this powerful invention to fulfill his petty needs and desires. So, it is the need of the hour to pose stringent rules and policies on carrying further work in this domain and to make possible the use of this ground braking invention for good reasons. We need to educate ourselves and articulate a response to the many ethical dilemmas that present themselves.
So let us try making this invention in every way a revolutionizing one rather than a maddening one.