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Craig Venter claims of creating new artificial life
Humanity is standing on the edge of another breakthrough. The creation of a synthetic chromosome would revolutionise bioengineering, to help deal with climate change or provide alternative energy sources. But are we ready for artificial life forms?

J CRAIG VENTER, who once contended with the United States government and led the private effort to map the human genome, is back in newspaper headlines again.

Craig Venter, a controversial DNA scientist, has claimed that his team has constructed a synthetic chromosome out of laboratory chemicals and is poised to declare the creation of the first artificial life form on planet Earth. Undisputedly, if Venter and his team deliver on his bold promise, they will be credited with the breakthrough of creating an almost completely new life form for the first time. Researchers hope that the discovery will contribute to developments in bioengineering, to help deal with climate change or provide alternative energy sources. Venter said that creating the new life form would be ’a very important philosophical step in the history of our species.’ This discovery will be a giant step forward in the development of designer genomes.                                        

A team of 20 top scientists chaired by the Nobel honouree Hamilton Smith, has constructed a synthetic chromosome that is 381 genes long and contains 580,000 base pairs of genetic code, using lab-made chemicals at the J Craig Venter Institute. It will be then transplanted into a living bacterial cell and in the final stage of the process, it is anticipated to take control of the cell and in effect become a new life form.

The new life form will depend on its ability to replicate itself and metabolise on the molecular machinery of the cell into which it has been shot, and in that sense it will not be a wholly synthetic life form. However, its DNA will be artificial, and it is the DNA that controls the cell and is credited with being the building block of life.   

To get a sense of what this really means, think of the genome as a book - a blueprint - that comprises of details of what each individual ought to be like. Now, each genome contains one or several chromosomes - which is a long chain of DNA that ‘tells’ the cell what kind it is, what to do and when. Each chromosome contains several genes-specific and unique stories told by each chapter. DNA is composed of sugar, phosphate and different combination of four nitrogen bases - Adenine (A), Guanine (G), Thiamine (T) and Cytosine (C). 

Genome    Chromosomes   Genes    DNA Nitrogenous base

Venter, a Vietnam veteran and a yachtsman, believes designer genomes have enormous positive potential if ‘properly’ regulated. In the long-term, he hopes they could lead to alternative energy sources previously unimaginable. Bacteria could be created, he theorises, that could help clear up excessive carbon dioxide, thus contributing to the solution to global warming, or produce fuels such as butane or propane made entirely from sugar.                          

But surprisingly, he failed to discuss the negative effects of this kind of research. He didn’t discuss the effect of human intervention in the natural process of life creation. He didn’t discuss that what does it mean to create new life forms in a test-tube and what would be the reverse effect of replacing the entire genetic code of one microbe with that of another.

No doubt, this is a groundbreaking work that must be done with the proper governance. To say that it is immoral or to try to block would be inappropriate .The key here is right regulation and transparency. If these criteria can be achieved then there is much to be gained.

Venter’s genome-swapping technique is, without question, the most morally challenging issue faced by man since scientists first split up the atom. Although Venter’s goal of creating new species of life holds great promise, of making life on this planet much easier and much more pleasurable for everyone. But if the power to create new life forms is not responsibly managed or worst, then it will be the worst imaginable nightmare for humankind. So I am not sure that it is a wholly ‘good science’, as claimed by Venter and this genome-swapping technique should be rigorously debated.

 

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