If the world does not fire up the torches on this one then maybe there is no hope for them. Scientists have succeeded in creating an artificial life form in a laboratory, as reported and published by Gibson et al. in Science Express, May 20 2010. Even worse, what they did was to build an artificial genetic code and use it to create a bacteria.
Do we really trust paid scientists working for the benefit of companies like British Petroleum? In all fairness, the development was announced at the J. Craig Venter Institute located in Maryland and California and is titled: “First Self-Replicating Synthetic Bacterial Cell” but this is no impartial University research department, but instead is a privately funded Genomic research institute.
Here Comes the Whirlwind
The possible nightmare scenarios inherent in this development are terrifying and no one is addressing them. The atom bomb was a noble science project until it was perfected and then it resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and over half a century of terror in the skies. Try to imagine what a robot bacteria, a self-replicating, artificial life form, could do; It nearly impossible to predict.
We do not know what might happen because we do not understand genetics. In spite of the vast gains in our knowledge of DNA, we have very little understanding of how it works. While there is a growing number of genes that have been identified as cancer causing or controlling blood chemistry, this should not be interpreted as an assurance of our full understanding of Genetics. Ignorance notwithstanding, one can only imagine the market for oil eating bacteria just now. Knowing the market potential for something is a strong driver for ambition. Our ambition may just reap the whirlwind if we fail to pay attention.
What the Scientists Did
The actual event was the result of several years of research and development. In short form, they took a bacterium and removed its DNA. They then constructed a copy of the genome and implanted the new, artificial DNA into another identical bacterium. That organism then behaved and reproduced as expected. This effort goes back to 2003 when the same team of researchers announced that they had synthesized a virus, but where unable to activate the genome in a host cell. In short, that announcement meant that it did not work, but this time it did.
In Science Magazine Dr. Daniel Gibson team researchers outlined how to synthesize a 1.08 million base pair Mycoplasma mycoides genome. While this is a long way from ordering your new puppy’s eye color on a website, it is terrifyingly close. I remember the movie “Andromeda Strain,” in which a rouge bacterium from outer space dissolves plastic and turns blood into crystal.
Even money says that a waste oil-eating bacterium is on top of their agenda at the J. Craig Venter Institute, in light of the BP oil spill situation. If it were and it escaped into the wild, it would have to be possible that it would eat all oil. That would include the oil in your car. Oopps! Talk about liability. Nevertheless, this artificial life form is real, it is here and it is here now; much like the cloning situation was…
Gibson et al., “Creation of a Bacterial Cell Controlled by a Chemically Synthesized Genome,” Science Express
Victoria Gill, “Artificial Life Breakthrough Announced by Scientists,” BBC America