Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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Comment on this entry

Give My Creation… Life!

Jamais Cascio

Open the Future

May 24, 2010

The Venter Institute announcement that it had successfully crafted the first self-replicating synthetic organism caused quite a stir, even among people who are otherwise pretty jaded about emerging tech.  It’s useful to understand exactly what is—and what isn’t—going on here.


Complete entry


Posted by John Clayton  on  05/24  at  12:00 PM

The promise of this science is worth the risks involved. We can hope for required shut off switches in this exciting new field, but let’s face facts, if you intend to do harm, you don’t care what the rules are. So the next question is ... how long before Iran or North Korea start working on this?

Posted by Rik Turgid  on  05/24  at  12:11 PM

Although this is astounding work, it looks like once again the techology is moving faster than the ethics.  Until the scientific community comes to a conclusion on how to deal with the ramaifcations of this work, it should stay in the virutal world of computer simulations.  It should never be allowed to be created in the real world until how to handle improper or malicious uses of this technology are ironed out.

Posted by CygnusX1  on  05/24  at  05:11 PM

Quote : ” It’s useful to understand exactly what is:and what isn’t:going on here.”

Well that’s cleared that up now I’m more confused than I was previously! Here’s the Sciencedaily version from May 20th..

“The research team, led by Craig Venter of the J. Craig Venter Institute, has already chemically synthesized a bacterial genome, and it has transplanted the genome of one bacterium to another. Now, the scientists have put both methods together, to create what they call a “synthetic cell,” although only its genome is synthetic.”

“In the Science study, the researchers synthesized the genome of the bacterium M. mycoides and added DNA sequences that “watermark” the genome to distinguish it from a natural one.”

“Because current machines can only assemble relatively short strings of DNA letters at a time, the researchers inserted the shorter sequences into yeast, whose DNA-repair enzymes linked the strings together. They then transferred the medium-sized strings into E. coli and back into yeast. After three rounds of assembly, the researchers had produced a genome over a million base pairs long.”

“The scientists then transplanted the synthetic M. mycoides genome into another type of bacteria, Mycoplasm capricolum. The new genome “booted up” the recipient cells. Although fourteen genes were deleted or disrupted in the transplant bacteria, they still looked like normal M. mycoides bacteria and produced only M. mycoides proteins, the authors report.”


This sounds more like good ole tape splicing than MP3 manipulation??

Re. Watermarks and errors

“But once this synthetic genome was inserted:the would-be host cell failed “and we did not know why,” Gibson says. By cross-checking the entire genome gene by gene, they found the fatal flaw after three months of work: a single missing base in the dnaA gene, which is required for life. “Accuracy is essential,” Venter said. “There are parts of the genome where it cannot tolerate even a single error.”

“Venter and his colleagues also included four “watermarks” in the code to distinguish the synthetic microbe:dubbed Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0:from natural organisms, including 46 names of scientific contributors to the synthetic genome, an email address and a web site based on a code derived from the four letters of the bases and 64 combinations of the four letters, or triplets, possible in the genetic code. “When you put English text into [the code], it generates very frequent stop codons in the genetic code and won’t produce big proteins,” said JCVI microbiologist Hamilton Smith, a Nobel Laureate in medicine. “It’s designed to be biologically neutral.”

“Gibson adds: “If one is able to translate the watermark sequences, they will be able to send us an email and prove that they decoded the sequences.”

“The man-made genetic code also includes three quotes: “To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, and to recreate life out of life” from James Joyce; “see things not as they are but as they might be” from Robert Oppenheimer via the Ethical Culture School in New York City; and “what I cannot build, I cannot understand” from physicist Richard Feynmann. “

This is from the link within the Arthur Caplan post from ScientificAmerican >>

Now that’s what I call a watermark!

Posted by Chris Connelly  on  05/24  at  06:51 PM

How can one control these organisms?

We believe we know how things work but we truly do not understand

Our problems are self created and looking to solve a sympton will not stop the problem

it just makes it easier for us to live with.

Posted by Abraham  on  05/24  at  11:51 PM

CalTech biologist and Nobel laureate David Baltimore said that Venter has “overplayed the importance” of his results, which represent “a technical tour de force” rather than a scientific breakthrough. Venter “has not created life, only mimicked it,” Baltimore said.

Boston University bioengineer James Collins called Venter’s work: “an important advance in our ability to re-engineer organisms, not make new life from scratch. Frankly, scientists don’t know enough about biology to create life. Although the Human Genome Project has expanded the parts list for cells, there is no instruction manual for putting them together to produce a living cell. It is like trying to assemble an operational jumbo jet from its parts list:impossible. Although some of us in synthetic biology have delusions of grandeur, our goals are much more modest.”

Posted by John Johnson  on  06/27  at  06:39 AM

Hi all. In the light of the recent breakthrough at the Craig Venter Institute many Christians I know claim that these synthetic life creations indeed proves the possibility of ID and spells trouble for the Evolution theory.
Although I am very sceptical about this claim, I need to formulate a response, as I am not really as scientifically inclined as many other atheists. Are there any of you bright young scientists that could explain their claim and also state how one can disprove it. I am sure it cant be that difficult.

Thanks all for some interesting responses! I am still a bit baffled about this but surely seeing it in a bit of a different light

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