Say goodbye to global warming, toxic waste, and dependency on fossil fuels, and get ready to enjoy perfect health with exotic bugs that could one day cure every human disease, including aging.
These are just a few of the possibilities researchers envision as they try to copy how nature gathers matter and transforms it into life. Life is generally not thought of as being mechanical, but a cell can be described as a machine that rearranges non-living atoms to create parts that bring those atoms to life.
Biologist Craig Venter and his team recently created the world’s first synthetic life form by programming an existing cell with new computer-generated DNA that offer unique benefits. This event paves the way to produce designer organisms that are built, rather than evolved. Venter explains in this 15-min. video.
Experts believe that in the future, this technology will allow scientists to build bacteria that secrete food edible by other ocean creatures, which would result in more seafood available for human consumption. There could even be bacteria that would digest oil spills and repair other ecological disasters. Venter sums it up this way: synthetic life heralds the dawn of an era where new lifeforms can benefit humanity.
Other efforts include designing new strains of bacteria that consume cholesterol and other dangerous substances in our bodies. We could even create protective bacteria that would seek out, attack, and destroy dangerous microbes that cause so much human misery and death.
Though most people believe this technology will provide unlimited commercial and medical benefits, others warn that artificial life might one day become a dangerous species with sinister possibilities.
Arthur Caplan of University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Bioethics and other concerned scientists believe this research could lead to unpredictable dangers. For example, a species created in the lab might not obey the rules of the natural world. After all, Earth lifeforms have evolved over three billion years, with competing species sharing a crowded planet, guiding intelligent life to its dominant position.
Critics imagine a synthetic microbe going on the rampage, perhaps wiping out all of the world’s crop plants, or worse; humanity itself could be targeted for extinction. Venter agrees that the technology requires thorough scrutiny and oversight, but he maintains that the benefits are too great to ignore.
Could synthetic lifeforms ever run amok and destroy the world? “When these things are created, they are so weak, we’re lucky if they remain alive in the lab for an hour,” says European Center for Living Technology’s Mark Bedau. “Never in our wildest imagination could a disaster like this ever happen.”
“It’s certainly true we are tinkering with something very powerful here,” says Santa Fe Institute’s Steen Rasmussen; “but when you think about it,” he added, “there’s not a lot of difference in what we’re doing here and what humans did when we invented fire, designed the transistor and split the atom.”
However, conservatives see still another issue to be resolved. Synthetic biology challenges our most cherished notions of the meaning of life. Is life sacred, or has it been reduced to a computer formula.
In another project, HHMI investigator and Nobel Laureate Jack Szostak predicts that by 2015, his group will produce a cell that can grow and divide. Once this happens, Szostak says, Darwinian evolution will take over, revealing a precise picture of how modern cells rose from their simpler ancestors.
This knowledge will help scientists understand how humans evolved in the past, and provide guidance towards a future human evolution driven, not by nature, but by tomorrow’s synthetic life technologies.
We will see tiny self-reproducing factories, disease-killing machines, and exotic creations performing many useful functions. Experts believe that by 2020, synthetic life creations could eliminate, or make manageable, nearly all human sicknesses, including most of today’s dreaded age-related diseases.
“The benefits of this technology are limited only by our imagination,” Venter says. By 2030 or before, human-made life forms could provide everyone with an affordable, ageless and forever healthy body, fashioned from newly-created ‘designer cells.’ Welcome to the future of artificial lifeforms.
Dick Pelletier is a weekly columnist who writes about future science and technologies for numerous publications. He's also appeared on various TV shows, and he blogs at Positive Futurist.