Synthetic biology

Synthetic biology: eroding the moral distinctions between animate and inanimate.

Sometimes science reveals distinctions to be false. Time and space were thought to be distinct, separate things, until Einstein showed that they were fundamentally intertwined. Graphite and diamond were thought to be made of distinct substances, until Tennant showed that they would release the same gas when burned.

In a similar way, progress in the field of synthetic biology is eroding the longstanding moral and theoretical distinctions we make between life and machinery. The recent breakthrough by Venter's group proves that life may be built from its component parts, and set into motion, just like inanimate machinery. No divine spark is required, no soul need be blown into the cells. Life no longer even requires a parent or progenitor.

One of the most widespread and longstanding moral beliefs is that there is an important difference between living organisms and inanimate machines. Nearly everybody agrees that there are moral boundaries on our treatment of living things. For vegetarians or vegans, this may include a belief that we should never intentionally kill another living being. For others, it may include a belief that we ought never to interfere with the cellular mechanics of a living being, as we do when we produce genetically-modified foods.

By contrast, nobody thinks that it is wrong to destroy, create, or tamper with a machine — even if the machine in question is exceedingly complex. This moral distinction is put in crisis by the synthetic biology projects of Venter and others. Going forward, we will need to find a more meaningful moral distinction than the line between the animate and the inanimate. Failing that, we are faced with an unacceptable set of alternatives: either to grant machines the moral status we currently accord to living things, or to treat living things in the manner of machines.

Venter creates bacterium controlled by a synthetic genome

Craig Venter’s team have succeeded in producing a synthetic bacterium capable of self-replication. The group synthesised from scratch a variant of the Mycoplasma mycoides genome, which they then transplanted into a different Mycoplasma species to produce a bacterium controlled by the synthetic genome. The resulting bacterium could be regarded as the first truly synthetic organism. Earlier forms of genetic engineering have involved modifying the genome of an existing organism; Venter’s group have produced an organism whose genome was instead pieced together from chemical building blocks.

The prospects created by this kind of work are huge. Synthetic organisms could in theory be programmed to perform a range of useful functions: to produce drugs, biofuels or other useful chemicals, to act as ‘bioremediators’, breaking down environmental toxins, or perhaps to act as anti-cancer ‘search and destroy’ agents.

However this research also raises some ethical concerns.

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Changing the Building Blocks of Life: Playing God and Being gods

All life on earth has the same simple basic structure. It is based on the genetic code contained in DNA. The differences in DNA between a toad and Albert Einstein are what determines their different properties.

The active ingredients in DNA are also simple. They are 4 bases: cytosine, guanine, adenine and thymine, or A, T, C and G. The order of these 4 bases is what determines the characteristics of life, the differences between Einstein and a toad.

Scientists in California have created two new bases in addition to A, T, C and G: dSICS and DMMO2. These new bases function like natural ones, they pair appropriately with their partner and are faithfully copied by the natural enzyme, DNA polymerase, responsible for making the billions of copies of DNA necessary to programme each cell in the body of a living organism.

At present, these new bases or building blocks do not do anything. But scientists hope they could be used

"for hundreds of purposes: for example, to build complex shapes, to build complex nanostructures, silence disease genes or even perform calculations… [and even]expand the genetic code and ‘evolvability’ of an organism."

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