The news that Craig Venters group appears to have succeeded in taking a major step towards "artificial life" by creating a bacterium from scratch should be greeted with a mixture of some scepticism, some concern and some hope. Having argued all my adult life against what I believe are primitive beliefs in Gods I am now left wondering if the Human species is setting itself up as God.
What his group have succeeded in doing , it seems, is in effect creating the first artificial genome from scratch using the building blocks of DNA. The media has of course described this as artificial life but that claim should be treated with some scepticism for a number of reasons.
First, they did not design a new gene sequence themselves as I understand it. It would appear that they in effect copied the DNA sequence from an existing organism. It is true that they then built this sequence from scratch - a significant achievement. Nevertheless it is still far from a fully artificially designed organism. In my book to fully qualify as artificial life would require that we had designed and built a completely new DNA sequence and created a self sustaining organism from that.
Second, they have not yet actually artificially created the cell structures into which they would imported the artificial sequence. They would need to use an existing organism and enhanced it by incorporating the artificially created sequence. My understanding would be that biologists are a long way from being able to artificially create the whole complex structure of a cell , with cell membranes and functioning cytoplasm.
So on these counts we should treat the "Artificial Life" claims with some scepticism. It makes good copy though - and as you can see I couldn't resist it in my own headline. What has been achieved is in effect a major advance in genetic engineering and a giant leap towards the design of artificial life. Where does this leave us with the "Are Humans Gods?" question? Well the answer I a happy to say is "No we are not". We havent created artificial life - yet?
We should also treat this development with some concern. Science frequently moves faster than our ability as a society to handle the moral and risk issues that scientific breakthroughs raise. In the case of genetic engineering as it has functioned to date there have been risks associated with the development of genetically altered organisms but these have generally been felt to be controllable. Nevertheless even before this breakthrough there have been justifiable concerns about the risks of genetically altered organisms being "in the wild" and having unintended and destructive consequences.
The current breakthrough may pose risks of a different magnitude however. The genetic engineering that can now be achieved following this breakthrough means that organisms with ways of functioning that are currently unknown on this earth could be potentially produced. This is a staggering thought and should make us pause and think.
Scientific understanding of genetics has advanced at an unbelievable pace in recent years but it would be difficult to argue that scientific understanding of how complex ecosystems work has advanced at the same pace. We struggle sometimes as it is to explain the shifting fortunes of animal and plant populations in current ecosystems. Are we really able to predict how organisms with significantly new capacities may effect existing ecosystems?
The ecosystems on this Earth are the product of eons of co-evolution in which different species have adapted to living within the same ecosystems. This co-evolution is not a happy clappy love and peace process but is forged over the countless years by competition, predation and differential rates of reproductive success. We should think very carefully before we rush to deploy these new technologies - the plants and animals that we depend on may not turn out to be so happy or healthy in radically altered ecosystems.
In the Christian notion of God, the deity must incoporate both good and evil because the devil or the evil spirit can by definition only have arisen through the power of the almighty creator.
Science is neither the Devil or God and neither are scientists. However, Science does contain within it both the power for good and the power of destruction and chaos. Scientists must take care that in seeking knowledge and benefits for our species they do not unwittingly open Pandoras box.
There is hope in this breakthrough though and it would be silly to react like Chicken Little. There is potential here for the development of organisms modified in ways which would be of great benefit to human kind. Imagine creating an organism able to target and destroy cancer cells in the human body for example. Or an organism designed to efficiently produce bio-fuel from waste products. The danger is that because for example the problems of climate change are so pressing, we may allow scientists to run too far too quickly in using these methods to tackle such problems.
These new technologies hold great promise but we need to apply great wisdom in deploying them. Have we sufficient wisdom? I suspect not at this point. We are not Gods and we have a still imperfect understanding of the world and its wonders - we would do well to remember this.
We unleashed an industrial revolution and resolved much human misery in the process. The price we are now paying is the major problem of global warming - the impact of which we are just getting a taste of. We stand at the brink of a biological revolution. Much good can come for us - but we must tread cautiously and not be so arrogant as to think ourselves Gods.