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Synthetic life promises ‘magical future’
Dick Pelletier   Sep 10, 2013   Ethical Technology  

Say goodbye to global warming, toxic waste, and dependency on fossil fuels, and get ready to enjoy perfect health with exotic drugs that could one day cure most diseases and extend lifespan indefinitely.

    These are just some of the possibilities envisioned by positive futurists as researchers attempt to copy how nature gathers non-living matter and transforms it into life.

    Life is generally not thought of as being mechanical, but in its basic definition, a cell is a miniature machine that rearranges non-living atoms to create parts that bring those atoms to life.

    In 2010, biologist entrepreneur Craig Venter and his team created the world's first synthetic life form; a cell programmed with artificial computer-generated DNA that promises incredible benefits. Venter said his achievement heralds the dawn of an era where new life is made to benefit humanity, starting with bacteria that churn out biofuels, soak up carbon dioxide from the air and make vaccines.

    Other benefits could 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. Watch this group of intelligent future followers discuss origin of life and other exciting ideas in this Science Network video.

    Though most people believe this technology will provide unlimited commercial and medical benefits, others worry about possible runaway dangers, along with ethical and moral issues of human-made life.

  ‚Äč  "It's certainly true we are tinkering with something very powerful here," says Steen Rasmussen of the NASA-supported Protocell project; "but when you think about it," he added, "there's no difference in what we're doing here and what humans did when we invented fire, designed the transistor and split the atom."

    Naysayers are concerned though; they say this technology could lead to unpredictable dangers.

    For example, an artificial species created in the lab, might not obey the rules of the natural world. After all, lifeforms on Earth have evolved over three billion years, with a myriad of competing species sharing an increasingly crowded planet, all of which has guided intelligent life to its current dominant position.

    It's possible to 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 artificial lifeforms ever run amok and destroy our world? "When these things are created, they are so weak, we're lucky if they remain alive for an hour in the lab," says Mark Bedau, COO of ProtoLife in Venice, Italy. Breaking out and taking over the world – never in our wildest imagination could this happen.

    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 formula in a computer.

    In another synthetic life research project, Harvard Nobel Laureate Jack Szostak predicts scientists will produce a complete cellular system by 2015. Once this happens, Szostak says, Darwinian evolution will take over, revealing a more precise picture of how modern cells arose 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. Positive futurists believe that by 2030 or before, human-made life forms could provide everyone with an affordable, ageless and forever healthy body fashioned from newly-created 'designer genes.' Welcome to the future of synthetic life.

Dick Pelletier was a weekly columnist who wrote about future science and technologies for numerous publications. He passed away on July 22, 2014.

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