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 entrepreneur, writer, campaigner and commentator. She is based in London and is the founder and Chief Executive of 2020health, an independent, social enterprise Think Tank whose aim is to Make Health Personal. Through networking, technology, research, relationships and campaigning 2020health has influenced opinion and action in fields as diverse as bioethics, alcohol, emerging technologies, fraud, education, consumer technology and vaccination. Julia studied visual science at City University and became a member of the College of Optometrists in 1991. Her career has included being a visiting lecturer at City University, a visiting clinician at the Royal Free Hospital, working with south London Primary Care Trusts and as a Director of the UK Institute of Optometry. She specialised in diabetes (University of Warwick Certificate in Diabetic Care) and founded Julia Manning Eyecare in 2004, a home and prison visiting practice for people with mental and physical disabilities using the latest digital technology, which she sold to Healthcall (now part of Specsavers) in 2009. Experiences of working in the NHS, contributing to policy development, raising two children in the inner-city and standing in the General Election in Bristol in 2005 led to Julia forming 2020health at the end of 2006. Julia is a regular guest on TV and radio shows such as BBC News, ITV’s Daybreak/ GMB, Channel 5 News, BBC 1′s The Big Questions, BBC Radio, LBC and has taken part in debates and contributed to BBC’s Newsnight, Panorama, You and Yours and ITV’s The Week. She is mum to a rugby-mad son, a daughter passionate about Shakespeare, and wife of a comprehensive school assistant head-teacher. She loves gardening, ballet, Zimbabwe, her Westies Skye and Angus, is an honorary research associate at UCL and a Fellow of the RSA.
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