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.

About Julia Manning

Julia is a social pioneer, writer and campaigner. She studied visual science at City University and became a member of the College of Optometrists in 1991, later specialising in visual impairment and diabetes. During her career in optometry, she lectured at City University, was a visiting clinician at the Royal Free Hospital and worked with Primary Care Trusts. She ran a domiciliary practice across south London and was a Director of the UK Institute of Optometry. Julia formed 20/20Health in 2006. Becoming an expert in digital health solutions, she led on the NHS–USA Veterans’ Health Digital Health Exchange Programme and was co-founder of the Health Tech and You Awards with Axa PPP and the Design Museum. Her research interests are now in harnessing digital to improve personal health, and she is a PhD candidate in Human Computer Interaction (HCI) at UCL. She is also dedicated to creating a sustainable Whole School Wellbeing Community model for schools that builds relationships, discovers assets and develops life skills. She is a member of the Royal Society of Medicine’s Digital Health Council. 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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