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Playing God

Entry 1194, on 2010-05-28 at 16:56:22 (Rating 2, Science)

There has been a lot of controversy and excitement recently over the development of a "synthetic genome" by Craig Venter's group of researchers. Many people seem outraged that they have dared to "play god". They say that as if it's a bad thing but I would say that's what science is all about.

Of course I don't mean that literally because there is no good reason to think there is a god but what I do mean is that science should try to gain the abilities that are traditionally associated with gods. On the other hand, some of the actions attributed to gods in the past may not be what we should strive for: death, destruction, and immature behaviour are some of the negative aspects of gods. I'm thinking more of the more positive god-like attributes such as creativity.

So what has Venter's group actually achieved? Well there is a lot of misinformation and flashy headlines going around which I think are very misleading. Basically they have succeeded in developing the first living cell which is controlled entirely by synthetic DNA. The DNA was created by machine from a computer program and injected into an already living cell from a different species.

All of the machinery of the cell already existed but the new DNA will cause that cell to replicate and those cells will have been "created" by the synthetic DNA. From what I understand most of the DNA is a sequence from an existing species (a different one from the cell) but that has been modified and the researchers can create any DNA sequence they want.

So what's the point? Is this some sort of Frankenstein-like act entirely designed to show how clever the scientists are and to create a potential risk with no hope of a positive outcome?

Of course not. All science is good and this would be even if had no practical purpose. But the ability to create a living cell with a DNA sequence specified by machine is potentially revolutionary. For a start it can be used to decide which parts of the sequence code for what because sections can be removed or changed easily. So it will lead to a much better understanding of how DNA sequences are translated into working proteins and how these function in biological processes.

And it means that entirely new life forms will be able to be created which might solve many of the greatest problems we have today: problems like energy generation and making spare body parts and designing new medical processes.

Naturally there have been many groups who are worried about the future of this technology. I call it the "Frankenstein syndrome". People naturally assume that technologies they don't understand and which seem to be "unnatural" must be dangerous. I agree that any technology can be dangerous and biological engineering certainly needs to be used carefully, but the potential advantages are so huge that it should take far more than just a vague general concern about genetic manipulation to halt the research.

It would be interesting to know if some of the objectors would change their mind if the technology was about to develop a cure for a disease they were likely to die from, for example. That might not be the case directly but in the long term it is likely to be true. Eventually most people will get a disease which this technology could fix. The problem is that the time gap between initial research and practical applications can be quite long and most people don't cope well with any process which takes longer than a few months.

Maybe if scientists were really playing god they could do the whole job in 7 days (including the well earned rest at the end) but their abilities aren't quite that divine just yet!

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Comment 1 (2664) by INRI on 2010-05-30 at 23:25:59:

Eventually I suppose Venter’s god like team could create some intelligent life forms that could then speculate on whether or not they were created or evolved. If they conclude that believing in God is not rational (and believing in god only shifts the problem back one step) and that they must have evolved then they would be quite wrong! So we would have an intelligently designed life form created by a god that evolved ex nihilo (Venter’s committee of gods). So I could also conclude that I may be made by a God who either came out of nowhere or always existed. I wonder what these intelligently designed life forms would conclude when they decode their own DNA to reveal an email address that Venter’s team has hidden in their genome?
Reminds me of the joke about some scientists who went to God and said we don’t need you now we can create our own life forms. “OK show me” says God. The scientists grab a handful of dirt and are about to create a new life form. “Whoa” says God, “you get your own dirt”.

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Comment 2 (2665) by OJB on 2010-05-31 at 14:51:18:

Of course, if artificial life concluded it was the result of a natural process it would be quite wrong, just like if natural life thought it was created by an intelligence it would also be wrong. The correct approach is is look at the facts and decide.

Finding an obvious code like an email address in DNA is strong evidence that an intelligence created it. We don't find anything like that in natural DNA (quite the opposite) which is one of many reasons to conclude that no intelligence was involved.

Yes, the old joke about the dirt. It does make the point regarding how "far back" do you need to go to be genuinely creating something new.

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