Creation of Synthetic Life
Today, due to a special documentary on the Science Channel, it became very public knowledge that Dr. Craig Venter (PhD in physiology and pharmacology from University of California), who drew attention and some acclaim when he decoded his own genome a few years ago, has “created synthetic life.”
We Christians have a nasty habit of reacting badly, ignorantly, and sometimes outrageously to stuff like this, so I thought maybe I could do my little part to stave that off.
I am not going to comment here on the ethics of whether Venter should have done this, or what the dangers or risks inherent in such endeavors are. When and if I understand it better, I might; but this short article is just going to describe what (as I understand it) he and his team did.
I don’t pretend to be an expert in this field, and have not had any formal teaching in biology beyond the pre-med biology I took back in college. However, I think I have enough comprehension of biology that I understand what he did. After reading some articles about it from various points of view, I am even more confident. I think I can offer a little bit of help in putting it in laymen’s terms. I hope that if any of you read this and think that I am misunderstanding it, please let me know.
First, I want to comment on the idea that Dr. Venter “created” anything.
To start, it seems clear to me that Venter created a living organism only in the same way that a painter creates a painting. He took existing materials and put them together in a new way. Obviously, he created nothing “ex nihilo” (“from nothing”). So far, no one has managed to pull that off. No one has started with a vacuum (they wouldn’t survive there anyway) and then made something come into existence. Further, Dr. Venter did not create something biological from something non-biological. He did not start with dirt, rock, bare amino acids, or anything else non-living. As I am understanding this, he started with living bacteria. John Horgan notes “As Bedau and others point out, scientists still have not come close to creating a living organism from nonbiological materials, especially ones that might have existed on Earth four billion years ago. In other words, scientists have not shown how life began, how inanimate materials become animate.” (Horgan, 2010) Venter deconstructed the living organism, took it’s genome, reorganized the genome, put that material back into a different bacterium “shell”, and that new organism lived.
Arthur Caplan wrote: “What seemed to be an intractable puzzle, with significant religious overtones, has been solved. J Craig Venter, Ham Smith, Clyde Hutchinson, Daniel Gibson and a team of scientists at the Venter Institute in Rockville, Md., have made a new living bacterium from a set of genes they decoded, artificially combined and then stuck into the cored out remains of the bacterium of another species. In other words, they created a living thing from man-made parts. Or, in more important words, they created a novel life form from man-made parts.” (Caplan, 2010) (emphasis mine)
To put it in East Texas terms, it sounds like he started with a gun, took the gun apart, put the inner workings of the gun back into the frame of a different gun, and fired it… and it worked. At a biological level, this is the first time it has been done, and I am stunned by how cool it is… but I am not sure I understand why Caplan and Venter refer to this as having “man-made” parts. I struggle to see how, by any definition, the parts from the first organism are “man-made”. They are certainly man-manipulated, and even man-reorganized, but I personally think the term “man-made” is pushing. If a doctor takes a heart from one donor, puts it into another person and the second person lives, was the heart man-made? Maybe I am not getting their argument on this.
I want to make clear that I am not in any way trying to diminish what an important breakthrough this is. This is a vital step in the goal to synthesize bio-fuels, to grow limbs and organs, to repair nervous systems, etc. Further, unlike much stem-cell research, it is done without necessitating the destruction of human life. If people have the goal of ever producing “life from lifelessness”, this would be an important mid-step for that as well.
Will this ever happen? Let Christians and other theists beware of being too quick to say it will not. If we aren’t careful, we can fall into the error of speaking of things of which we know not. The Bible does not ever claim that it would be impossible for humans to being life from lifelessness, so we had better not make such a claim. I think it is unlikely, and, of course, it is beyond me to think that we would ever bring something into existence ex nihilo. However, in my opinion, if we did ever manage to pull off “life from lifelessness”, it would only prove to me that if an intelligent and intentional designer puts enough energy and care into it, life can come from lifelessness. Such evidence would do nothing to make me question a creator/designer; it would only strengthen it.
Ok, so to explain… no, to sum up, though this is a very cool breakthrough, I personally would be hesitant to call it “creating” anything. It is not life from non-organic material, it is the restructuring and perhaps re-animation of a living thing. “Actually, Venter has taken just another incremental step in the human manipulation of life…” (Horgan, 2010).
Let me know what you think!
Caplan, Arthur “Now ain’t that special? The implications of creating the first synthetic bacteria” by Scientific American Website, May 20th, 2010
Horgan, John “Craig Venter has neither created – nor demystified – life” Scientific American Website, May 27th, 2010