Boris of Biology – Facts of Artificial Life

This is a repeat of a post from Centreright – but here again because it’s so important we get this right. There are claims that this science will benefit health. The usual example given is  the ‘synthetic biological’ form of artemisinin for malaria, but this is not proving easy and it is two years behind it’s predicted production date. However the risks are significant, and we shouldn’t progress without a risk analysis….

Craig Venter is the ‘Boris’ of Biology, a larger than life figure with an outspoken passion for progress in genetics and slightly worrying drive to create Artificial Life.

What they did: In short his team made a synthetic copy of a bacterial genome (of 500 genes – we have about 25,000) and inserted it into another live host bacterial cell whose own DNA had been removed. This second cell was then only being controlled by the synthetic genome, as it’s the DNA in the genome that directs the cell’s activities. So this combination of synthetic genome plus the (already live) host was something totally novel, and the proof that it ‘worked’ is that this new bacteria went on to divide in the normal way that bacterial cells do.

Why it’s not artificial life: While this is a significant achievement which took 15 years and £30m to create, I would argue however against the Economist’s claim that ‘mere mortals have now made artificial life’ for the two main reasons. Firstly it’s a copy of an existing, naturally occurring genome; and secondly it wouldn’t have got anywhere without the live host cell, and all the essential stuff (polymerase enzymes, ribosomes, mRNA, mitochondria, cytoplasm) that the host cell contained. We haven’t created new life-giving chemicals or designed a previously unknown live creature. And although the speed of DNA synthesis and experimentation is increasing, the staggering complexities of gene expression, incompatibility of genetic ‘parts’ and unpredictability of the cellular ‘circuits’ still constitute massive hurdles to progress.

Policy Implications: However the policy implications are still huge. For a start, if ‘progress’ is defined as steady improvement, what are we trying to improve, and why? And what are the risks of pursuing ‘progress’? With such little public engagement in science, people will worry about what this means to them, to life, to safety. Life scientists will worry about ‘GM’ type rejection and security specialist’s concern will revolve around the ignorancee of life scientists who are unaware of international treaties that exist to reduce bio-error. We may not be able to create artificial life, but someone could create artificial smallpox…..

The call for a moratorium from Human Genetics Alert on this science is no bad thing. It will raise the profile, allow us to analyse the benefits and assess the risk – ultimately increasing the public’s confidence in decisions made. We shouldn’t continue regardless just because we can.

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About Julia Manning

Julia Manning is a social pioneer, writer, campaigner and commentator. Formerly a clinical optometrist specialising in diabetes and visual impairment, she is the founder and Director of 2020health, an independent, social enterprise Think Tank whose aim is to Make Health Personal and Social. 2020health has through research, events and campaigning influenced opinion and action in fields as diverse as bioethics, alcohol, emerging technologies, fraud, education, consumer technology and vaccination. In 2014, 2020health were founding partners of the Health Tech and You Awards with Axa PPP and the Design Museum. Since 2016, 2020health has increasingly focused on digital health and public health in the community. Julia is a Fellow of the RSA and now also a part-time PhD student at the UCL Interaction Centre, studying the use of digital technology for stress management in the workplace. Julia has shared 2020health's research widely in the media (BBC News, ITV, Channel 5 News, BBC 1′s The Big Questions & Victoria Derbyshire, BBC Radio 4 Today, PM and Woman's Hour, LBC) and has taken part in debates and contributed to BBC’s Newsnight, Panorama, You and Yours and ITV’s The Week.
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