Tag: synthetic life

Bioethics News

Synthetic Life and Biodiversity

Last year, the first truly novel synthetic life form was created. The Minimal Cell created by the Venter Lab, contains the smallest genome of any known independent organism.[1] While the first synthetic microbe was created in 2010, that was simply a like for like synthetic copy of the genome of an existing bacterium. Nothing like the Minimal Cell exists in nature

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.

Bioethics Blogs

Synthetic life and biodiversity

Written by Dr Chris Gyngell

Last year, the first truly novel synthetic life form was created. The Minimal Cell created by the Venter Lab, contains the smallest genome of any known independent organism.[1] While the first synthetic microbe was created in 2010, that was simply a like for like synthetic copy of the genome of an existing bacterium.  Nothing like the Minimal Cell exists in nature.

This great advance in synthetic biology comes at a time where natural life forms are being manipulated in ways never seen before.  The CRISPR gene editing system has been used to create hulk-like dogs, malaria proof mosquitoes, drought resistant wheat and hornless cows. The list of CRISPR-altered animals grows by the month.

Such developments hasten the need for a systematic analysis of the ethics of creating new forms of life. In a recent paper[2], Julian Savulescu and I draw attention to how thoughts regarding the value of biodiversity may bear on this question.

The idea that biodiversity is valuable is ubiquitous. The United Nations “Convention on Biodiversity”, signed by over 160 countries, recognises the “intrinsic value of biological diversity”.[3]  The idea that biodiversity is valuable has also greatly influenced the commercial sector and is a cornerstone of the modern corporate social responsibility movement. The value of biodiversity has even been recognised by the Catholic Church. Pope Francis devotes an entire section of his Encyclical Letter, “On Care For Our Common Home” to the Loss of Biodiversity, describing a new Sin, the destruction of biological diversity.

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.

Bioethics News

Scientists Create ‘Designer Yeast’ in Major Step Toward Synthetic Life

March 9, 2017

(The Washington Post) – In a significant advance toward creating the first “designer” complex cell, scientists say they are one-third of the way to synthesizing the complete genome of baker’s yeast. In seven studies published Thursday in the journal Science, the researchers describe how they built six of the 16 chromosomes required for the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, altering the genetic material to edit out some genes and write in new characteristics.

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.

Bioethics Blogs

Two more biomedical editorials about the cutting edge

1)      The new issue of Nature Biotechnology carries an erratic editorial complaining that “alarmist” responses to the recent announcement that a project to synthesize an entire human genome may be launched “missed the point.”  The editors say that worries about “synthetic life and secret meetings” missed the point.  The lesser goals of the project—more “nearfetched,” if you will—call for synthesizing long, sub-genomic stretches of DNA that would, if successful, be tour de forces themselves and open a number of lines of important scientific inquiry.  They list several, most of which appear ethical, with the possible exception of the potential to alter human stem cells with synthetic DNA.  If the stem cells in question are somatic stem cells, I’d see no fundamental new ethical problem.  If, however, the stem cells would be embryonic stem cells, more mature embryos, or even iPSCs, which could differentiate into germ cells in some settings, then I would say those experiments should not be done.

Moreover, the synthesis of a full Mycoplasma genome has been underproductive, stimulating less new research than it ought to have by now, they claim.

The editorial is erratic because at the end they write that although engendering live human offspring bearing synthetic genomes “is not the plan,” the editors nonetheless would be a “giant step” toward “the future that many people fear,” and that proposed “ultrasafe” approaches will do nothing to prevent the most dystopian attempts.

In the end, then, the Nature Biotechnology editors, in their density, make precisely the point that they claim the “alarmists” to have missed. 

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.

Bioethics News

‘Minimal’ Cell Raises Stakes in Race to Harness Synthetic Life

March 30, 2016

(Nature) – Venter, who has co-founded a company that seeks to harness synthetic cells for making industrial products, says that the feat heralds the creation of customized cells to make drugs, fuels and other products. But an explosion in powerful ‘gene-editing’ techniques, which enable relatively easy and selective tinkering with genomes, raises a niggling question: why go to the trouble of making new life forms when you can simply tweak what already exists?

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.

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.

Bioethics Blogs

Not Quite ‘Transcendent’

Editor’s Note: In 2010, Mark Gubrud penned for Futurisms the widely read and debated post Why Transhumanism Won’t Work.” With this post, we’re happy to welcome him as a regular contributor.

Okay, fair warning, this review is going to contain spoilers, lots of spoilers, because I don’t know how else to review a movie like Transcendence, which appropriates important and not so important ideas about artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and the “uploading” of minds to machines, wads them up with familiar Hollywood tropes, and throws them all at you in one nasty spitball. I suppose I should want people to see this movie, since it does, albeit in a cartoonish way, lay out these ideas and portray them as creepy and dangerous. But I really am sure you have better things to do with your ten bucks and two hours than what I did with mine. So read my crib notes and go for a nice springtime walk instead.

Set in a near future that is recognizably the present, Transcendence sets us up with a husband-and-wife team (Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall) that is about to make a breakthrough in artificial intelligence (AI). They live in San Francisco and are the kind of Googley couple who divide their time between their boundless competence in absolutely every facet of high technology and their love of gardening, fine wines, old-fashioned record players and, of course, each other, notwithstanding a cold lack of chemistry that foreshadows further developments.

The husband, Will Caster (get it?), is the scientist who “first wants to understand” the world, while his wife Evelyn is more the ambitious businesswoman who first wants to change it.

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.