Thursday, May 20, 2010


I'm not sure what sort of coverage this will get in the mainstream media, but it had better be big. Huge. Epic. What is "this"? Oh, only a watershed moment in human existence; the creation of synthetic life!

I'm still watching/listening to the press conference (accessible through the link above if you see this in time, but so far my understanding is that they have synthesized an entire genome (!) and inserted it into an existing bacterial cell with the DNA removed. The DNA they synthesized seems to have been coded/designed (I'll have to talk to some of my biologist friends to learn the correct terminology) on a computer and then more or less literally pieced together from synthesized A, C, T, and G molecules. It's a pretty minimal genome, I think, but what's important here is that now that we've done it once at this level of complexity, it's only a matter of time before we scale it up. So far the projected applications are in fuel generation, water purification, and improved vaccines...and I think that's just future bacteria!

I can't find it, but I think I linked some time ago to a similar sort of experiment done by a group whose aim was to create not just a minimal genome, but also to detangle the inelegant "spaghetti" code which has accumulated over the course of evolution. In the natural world, as long as it works it's ok - but when you want to start building something that a human coder can work with, you'd like him or her to have a powerful and intuitive programming language. I recall that they had succeeded in creating an organism that was somewhat less viable, but still workable at some point in their research. I don't think these are necessarily connected groups, but someone should probably introduce them! If any of you reading this have ever owned a lego mindstorms kit, you'll remember the oft-maligned programming interface in which tasks were connected like so many lego bricks into little if/or trees; say what you want about the implementation: the dream of synthetic biology has been to render down the genetic code into little modular packages so that we're not limited by the little idiosyncracies of one organism or another when we want to purpose-build a bacterium to, say, make oil into plastic for us. Now that we seem to have had successes on both fronts, I'm getting pretty intensely excited!

There are, of course, some significant ethical/philosophical issues in light of this breakthrough. It seems that these researchers are already designing safety measures to prevent unchecked proliferation of synthetic organisms outside the lab, which is comforting. There's also the highly contentious issue of patented genes and life forms. I'm not sure where I stand on this quite yet; on the one hand I see the need to encourage further research in this field, but on the other hand we should at least draw a complexity barrier past which we start treating a synthetic being as we would any other. Maybe once a life-form can be reasonably expected to feel pain? Of course that leaves a great big loophole if we could ever create a complex being without the capacity for pain (bad idea!). I think also that while some reproductive controls should obviously be required for safety reasons, we should not start setting dangerous precedents. Terminator seeds (which sprout once, and which farmers must buy year after year) I find already disturbing. It will be a long way before we have to start worrying about farmers who can't reproduce their synthetic plants, but we should be mindful not to allow some industries to acquire disproportionate power over the livelihoods of others. Especially once food and fuel begin to enter the picture!

With all of this having been said: HOLY SHIT HUMANS JUST MADE LIFE! step closer to this:

Number Six (The Cylon)

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