Bioethics Blogs

Free to Experiment?

Last month, Vice published a short article by Jason Koebler about how genetic engineering, including the genetic engineering of human beings, is probably protected by the First Amendment. The basic argument behind this seemingly ridiculous notion is that the First Amendment protects not only speech but also “expressive conduct,” which can include offensive performance art, flag burning, and, perhaps, “acts of science.” Such acts of science may be especially worth protecting when they are very controversial, since that might mean they should be treated as political or religious speech. The 2010 hullabaloo over Craig Venter’s “synthetic cell” was trotted out as an example of the deep political and even religious implications of scientific experiments, since the idea of creating synthetic life might, as it did for Venter himself, change our “views of definitions of life and how life works.”

It is worth noting that, notwithstanding breathless headlines and press releases, Craig Venter did not create a “synthetic life form.” What Venter did was synthesize a bacterial genome, though he did not design that genome, but rather used a slightly modified version of the sequence of an existing bacterial species. Venter then put this synthesized genome into cells of a closely related bacterial species whose genome had been removed, and, lo, the cells used their new genomes and eventually came to resemble the (slightly different) species from which the synthetic genome was derived.

Unless Venter once believed that DNA possessed mystical properties that made it impossible to manufacture, or that he had never heard of bacterial transformation experiments by which bacteria can pick up and use foreign pieces of DNA (experiments that predate, and were in fact used to establish, our knowledge that DNA is the molecule of heredity), it is hard to see why he would need to change his “views of definitions of life and how life works” in light of his experiment.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.