Friday, May 21, 2010

Creating life

I read an article this morning on the BBC called "'Artificial life' breakthrough announced by scientists". Basically, they put a DNA molecule together by copying the DNA of a known bacteria, then put the DNA in the cell of an already existing bacteria. And it worked.

Personally, I think that is really cool. I mean think of the possibilities if we could build DNA ourselves. The reason humans have five fingers, birds have wings, and snakes lack legs is because of their DNA. If we really understood how DNA is able to code for all these features, and if we're able to build DNA molecules, then the possibilities seem limitless. We could create all sorts of things that barely even resemble what already exists. We could recreate dinosaurs. We could make horses with wings. We could make super-humans.

Of course there'll be an ethical debate about how we should use this technology. If they won't even allow human cloning, there's no way anybody is going to allow hybrid pseudo-humanoids. I'm just saying we could.

I think that with this technology, there is potential for great danger and great good. We've already seen what can happen when software engineering capability falls into the hands of the wrong people. Some people can't resist the urge to create computer viruses and spread them to as many people as possible. It's only a matter of time before some nut creates a super virus or a super bacteria that will reek all kinds of havoc. Biological warfare will spare no one.

But at the same time, it seems at least possible to create organisms that fight cancer or other diseases. Maybe a person's own stem cells can be taken out, re-engineered, and inserted back into the person that would allow the person to live longer. I really can't tell you what the possibilities might be, but I suspect there are all kinds of good possibilities.

So is it worth it? Is the potential good worth pursuing given the potential harm? To an extent, I'm not sure it matters, because we have such a thirst for knowledge--such a curiosity--that this is going to be explored regardless of the dangers. If government ever tried to put a stop to it, somebody in a secret lab somewhere would do it anyway. But I think at the very least, people ought to be made aware of the potential dangers.

Somebody posted a question this morning on Yahoo Answers wanting people's thoughts. One nut on there thought it somehow proved that life could've emerged through purely naturalistic causes. How he figured that the ability of an intelligent being (namely, humans) to engineer life is somehow evidence against Intelligent Design is beyond me. It sounds to me like the very definition of Intelligent Design. I wonder if the nut on Yahoo Answers thinks that since we've shown that humans are able to engineer cars, that cars could have emerged through purely naturalistic causes.

And that raises an interesting question. Suppose we decide to create, from scratch, a few different living organisms and implant them on a planet somewhere far away from earth. And then suppose those creatures evolved to the point that they could ask such questions as, "Where did we come from?" "Why are we here?" And suppose they discovered the theory of evolution. And suppose a small number of them said, "Wait a minute. Our DNA shows evidence of intelligent design. We think life was engineered by an intelligent being." They would be right, wouldn't they?

Think about that for a minute. Their evidence for intelligent design would be no different than our evidence for intelligent design. And they would be right to draw that conclusion. Is it unreasonable, then, for us to draw that conclusion?

But most people say our DNA does not show evidence of intelligent design. Think about that, too. It means that if we engineered life, put it on another planet, and it evolved into smart critters like us, they would never be able to tell their they had been engineered. They would never be able to tell that their DNA was the result of intelligent design. In spite of the fact that their DNA was the result of intelligent design, there would be no evidence for it. And the most justified conclusion for them would be that they emerged through a blind natural process.


At 5/27/2010 2:30 PM , Blogger Paul said...

Sam, I was thinking about blogging on this (or posting something on Facebook, anyway). I was going to deal with the curious nature of the headlines that relate to this, which seem to suggest that we had created artificial life. The nut on Yahoo Answers was probably just reacting to the journalistic exaggeration that accompanies these kinds of things.

You’re right that it is cool, and implies both promise and danger, but in a way it is a very mundane thing. All they did was take existing DNA, replicate it (with some neutral “watermarks”) and put it into another cell with its DNA vacated. It’s technically the same as cloning, it seems to me. Now, if they can build an entire cell from scratch, assemble it, and get it jump started to begin metabolism, that would be cool. Cooler still would be coding their own DNA from scratch to make a brand new thing. But they’re still trying to figure out how the cell works.

I think you’re right to mention the dangers. We could do some pretty cool things with engineering, perhaps, like making bacteria that turns spilled oil into chocolate pudding. My concern is that our ignorance about life and ecosystems may be trumped by our hubris. I’ve seen many assumptions about something as simple as nutrition get overturned, and then overturned again. I’ve also seen other assumptions cause us to miss important things, like labeling the non-protein coding DNA as “junk.” So, what if we engineer something “beneficial” and released it based upon bad assumptions? I’m more worried about unintentional harm than about Taliban cave rats getting hold of genetic engineering technology.

At 5/27/2010 6:32 PM , Blogger Sam said...

Paul, putting existing DNA into another cell (cloning) is mundane by now, but I don't think replicating a DNA molecule is mundane. If we have the ability to construct DNA molecules, then it's just a matter of time when we'll start getting creative with it instead of just copying.

You have a good point about the unintentional harms that could happen. I didn't think of that.

At 5/27/2010 8:51 PM , Blogger Paul said...

It certainly is impressive to manufacture DNA strands. They've done it before, but the manufacturing process has become cheap enough to do long strands. Interestingly, they used biological systems in that process, like using yeast to connect DNA segments.

What I mean, is that given that what they created was a mirror copy of a DNA package, then removing the DNA from a cell and replacing it with another package is basically the procedure used for somatic cell nuclear transfer (cloning). The difference is that the cell is a very simple one-cell organism rather than an egg cell, and the packet that was removed was not half of the DNA (the mothers) which was then replaced by a complete chromosome set. In this case, the DNA was basically the same as what they took out.

So, if they had taken DNA out of a cell and put it back in, then this would be equivalent to taking it out and putting in a manufactured copy.


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