Playing God? Life Created in the Laboratory


Newsweek’s Cover story is about abiogenesis and synthesis of self-replicating organisms. I just finished reading this article online [NewsWeek at MSNBC.Com] and noticed that PZ Myers has a post on it already. Before I read his, I thought I’d post a quick review of the article with a few quotes and encourage others to check it out.

The Newsweek article’s author refers to biological researchers concerned with creating life synthetically as “SynBio practitioners,” giving the field a near religious moniker. The article was informative but the slant seemed decidedly against science in this regard, going out of its way to point out the “dangers” and “immorality” of research in this field:

Despite the opposition, the researchers who work in the field, which is known as Synthetic Biology, have a disarming casualness about their work—almost as though they were building machines, rather than living things.

And,

Like most biologists, SynBio practitioners have a more materialist view of life. “Life is not magic,” says Princeton’s Ron Weiss, an electrical engineer who now concentrates on genetic programming of cells. He thinks older biologists like Kass have not kept up with advances in science. Of course, SynBio scientists haven’t quite proven that a cell is a kind of biochemical machine, and religious biologists like Kass and Collins hang on tightly to this uncertainty. Proof will come when the first discrete, self-maintaining, self-replicating, stable organic creature—Life 2.0—is created from scratch in the lab.

And, of course, the very lead in for the magazine is the cover, which has “Playing God” in big, bold type. Then the subtitle of the article reads, “[a] new generation of scientific mavericks is not content to merely tinker with life’s genetic code. They want to rewrite it from scratch.”

It benefits a magazine like Newsweek, of course, to use lead-ins and call-outs that hook the reader by highlighting the controversial aspects. They’ll already have the attention of those interested in the science behind the story, but such editorial strategies will ensure that those that question the research will read as well. So I really can’t fault Newsweek much for playing both sides of the fence. Particularly when they include many positive aspects of the research as well:

A few projects are already giving us a glimpse of the power of this new field. The most extraordinary effort is to create a microbial organism that would produce a powerful antimalarial drug.

And,

Christopher Voigt, of UC San Francisco, and Christina Smolke, of Caltech, are in the early stages of designing microbes that would circulate through the human bloodstream, seeking out cancerous tumors anywhere in the body. The microbes might be equipped with a biodevice that detects the low oxygen levels characteristic of a tumor, another that invades the cancer cells, a third that generates a toxin to kill the cells and a fourth that hangs around afterward in case the cancer comes back.

And,

Venter and Church are eyeing an even bigger prize: a self-sustaining, highly efficient biological organism that converts sunlight directly into clean biofuel, with minimal environmental impact and zero net release of greenhouse gases.

So maybe those skeptical because of religious reasons will see what they came for: like minded scientists that dissent from the research (albeit a small minority). But, at the same time, maybe some will be swayed by the benefits and begin to question their dogmatic opposition.

Related Links:
Silver, Lee (2007) Life 2.0:
A new generation of scientific mavericks is not content to merely tinker with life’s genetic code. They want to rewrite it from scratch. Newsweek, found on the web at: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/18882828/site/newsweek/