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Playing God

There has been a lot of controversy and excitement recently over the development of a “synthetic genome” by Craig Venter’s group of researchers. Many people seem outraged that they have dared to “play god”. They say that as if it’s a bad thing but I would say that’s what science is all about.

Of course I don’t mean that literally because there is no good reason to think there is a god but what I do mean is that science should try to gain the abilities that are traditionally associated with gods. On the other hand, some of the actions attributed to gods in the past may not be what we should strive for: death, destruction, and immature behaviour are some of the negative aspects of gods. I’m thinking more of the more positive god-like attributes such as creativity.

So what has Venter’s group actually achieved? Well there is a lot of misinformation and flashy headlines going around which I think are very misleading. Basically they have succeeded in developing the first living cell which is controlled entirely by synthetic DNA. The DNA was created by machine from a computer program and injected into an already living cell from a different species.

All of the machinery of the cell already existed but the new DNA will cause that cell to replicate and those cells will have been “created” by the synthetic DNA. From what I understand most of the DNA is a sequence from an existing species (a different one from the cell) but that has been modified and the researchers can create any DNA sequence they want.

So what’s the point? Is this some sort of Frankenstein-like act entirely designed to show how clever the scientists are and to create a potential risk with no hope of a positive outcome?

Of course not. All science is good and this would be even if had no practical purpose. But the ability to create a living cell with a DNA sequence specified by machine is potentially revolutionary. For a start it can be used to decide which parts of the sequence code for what because sections can be removed or changed easily. So it will lead to a much better understanding of how DNA sequences are translated into working proteins and how these function in biological processes.

And it means that entirely new life forms will be able to be created which might solve many of the greatest problems we have today: problems like energy generation and making spare body parts and designing new medical processes.

Naturally there have been many groups who are worried about the future of this technology. I call it the “Frankenstein syndrome”. People naturally assume that technologies they don’t understand and which seem to be “unnatural” must be dangerous. I agree that any technology can be dangerous and biological engineering certainly needs to be used carefully, but the potential advantages are so huge that it should take far more than just a vague general concern about genetic manipulation to halt the research.

It would be interesting to know if some of the objectors would change their mind if the technology was about to develop a cure for a disease they were likely to die from, for example. That might not be the case directly but in the long term it is likely to be true. Eventually most people will get a disease which this technology could fix. The problem is that the time gap between initial research and practical applications can be quite long and most people don’t cope well with any process which takes longer than a few months.

Maybe if scientists were really playing god they could do the whole job in 7 days (including the well earned rest at the end) but their abilities aren’t quite that divine just yet!

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