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Synthetic life? Synthetic hysteria more like

1.Synthetic life? Synthetic hysteria more like
2.Creating synthetic life is a powerful, dangerous tool

NOTE: The first piece is an extract only as sadly after an excellent start that debunks much of the current hype ("Venter ascends the throne of deity", etc.), the Times article then descends into a rather banal discussion of "playing God", etc. that more or less tells its readers that they shouldn't worry their little heads over these developments or allow ethicists to tie them in knots.

Usefully though, the article does also remind us that Craig Venter is not just a "flamboyant US molecular biologist" but an entrepreneur. And it's worth remembering that while the Human Genome Project brought Venter to public prominence, it was as the head of a private company - Celera Genomics. This initiative had a completely different raison d'etre to that behind the public project, which wanted the sequenced human genome to be made available free of charge to any researcher who wanted it. Celera Genomics, by contrast, was ready to begin patenting anything and everything of interest that looked like it had commercial potential.

Venter's current company, Synthetic Genomics, has teamed up with pharma giant Novartis and oil giant Exxon Mobil, which has poured in hundreds of thousands of dollars. BP is also massively investing in synthetic biology (via UC Berkeley). The involvement of such companies is not exactly a good omen in terms of planetary care!
1.Synthetic life? Synthetic hysteria more like
Raymond Tallis
The Times, May 22 2010

Craig Venter, the flamboyant US molecular biologist and entrepreneur, has been at it again. Not content with first-equal position in the race to give a complete description of the human genome, he has now announced that his team have created the world's first synthetic life form. The editor of the journal Artificial Life has described this as "a defining moment in biology". Dr Venter himself has claimed that his success has changed his "view of the definition of life and of how life works".

Well, he would do, wouldn't he? Before we get too excited, we should note that he has not actually "created artificial life", as the headlines proclaim. He has synthesised DNA from basic chemicals; but lone DNA is not life. More, much more is needed. In this case, it was provided by an existing bacterium whose usual humble duty is to cause mastitis in goats. Into this the DNA was inserted. Yes, the resulting minute organism was new life but nearly all of that new life was taken off the shelf from nature.

The challenge of creating genuinely artificial life is much greater than that of getting new DNA to hitch a ride in existing cells. The enormous complexity of living cells ”” with their multitudes of interacting organelles, their exquisitely folded smart membranes and their mind-bogglingly complex signalling systems ”” makes the task of genuinely synthesising new living matter unimaginably difficult.

Indeed, one of the ironical consequences of the completion of the Human Genome Project was that it showed us how little the genetic code told us about living organisms, particularly complex ones like us. The increased emphasis over the past decade of disciplines ”” such as post-genomics, epigenetics, and integrative biology ”” that try to bridge the gulf between the genome and the organism is an indirect criticism of the hype that surrounded the decoding of human DNA.
2.Creating synthetic life is a powerful, dangerous tool
Experts call for regulation

Margaret Munro, Canwest News Service; with files from Agence France-Presse
The Vancouver Sun, 22 May 2010

Jim Thomas has a kit in his Montreal office he can use to make cells glow with synthetic DNA.

"I can do it in the kitchen," says Thomas. Cooking up artificial genes is fast becoming child's play.

College students now flock to an annual synthetic biology competition called iGEM -- International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition -- where they dice and splice DNA into some pretty interesting creations. Last year's winner was a U.S. team that built E. Chromi-- an E. coli bacteria programmed to turn different colours in response to the toxins it detects.

Now the world's highest profile "synbio" player -- U.S. geneticist Craig Venter -- has upped the game, with the announcement this week that his Maryland company has created the first synthetic cells from a DNA recipe stored in a computer.

"This is the first self-replicating species that we've had on the planet whose parent is a computer," Venter told reporters Thursday as he unveiled his creation in the journal Science.

His synthetic bacteria cells are the first organisms since life emerged billions of years ago that don't have a living ancestor.

Venter's microbe is now locked away in a freezer in Maryland, but the recipe for its life-giving DNA sequence, and the techniques used to bring it to life, are now part of the growing collection of DNA manipulation tools available over the Internet.

None of it sits well with Thomas, an activist at the Canadian watchdog organization ETC Group that has long been a thorn in Venter's side.

"That particular group likes to make a living off of commenting on what we do. I don't think there is a lot of value in their approach," Venter said when asked about ETC's call Thursday for a moratorium on synthetic biology until international rules are in place.

ETC likens Venter's self-replicating synthetic cells to "splitting the atom.

"It's crossing a significant technological boundary, and we should start putting in place the mechanisms to deal with the fallout," Thomas said.

Calls for regulation

As a first step, he said, regulations are needed to ensure commercial DNA operations do not "send out dangerous strands of DNA."

He's not the only one worried. On Friday, the official newspaper of the Vatican, L'Osservatore Romano, praised Venter's breakthrough but insisted it did not amount to the creation of life, but only "the replacement of one of its motors."

The newspaper editorial also called for close regulation of the emerging science. "Proclamations and newspaper titles aside, the result obtained is interesting, and it might find applications, but it needs to have rules, like anything that touches the heart of life," L'Osservatore Romano said.

Margaret Somerville, founding director of Montreal's McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law, said molecular biology is "the single greatest power that humans have ever had" -- for good or ill.

"It's the power to alter the 4.8 billion years of evolution that have resulted in all the variety of life on Earth, including us humans. We desperately need to have ethics to govern what's okay to do with this and what's not okay," she said.

"Of course there will be benefits, but we have to make sure that we don't do a lot of harm in seeking those benefits. We have be constantly aware of that possibility, which doesn't mean we should be terrified, but it means we should be prudent."

She also agreed with the Vatican's position that Venter's project stopped short of the creation of life.

"Really the question is: Is this the creation of life or is it the transmission of life through a new scientific technique or technology?" she said. "Is he creating life from non-life?

"My guess is that he's not because he's still using DNA particles, he's using a cell membrane from what was a living yeast or a living E. coli bacteria. The real test would be if you started with chemicals that were definitely not alive and then you created life."

There are already dozens of companies selling DNA on the Internet. Most of it is harmless, such as the artificial DNA sequence that makes cells glow yellow, but there is mounting concern that some of the DNA could be put to sinister uses.

Venter and his colleagues acknowledge the risk. Until now, they said, bioterrorists would have had to either go out and find "nasty" pathogens in nature or steal them from a lab. Synthetic biology raises the possibility of creating new pathogens in a garage or basement, using genetic building blocks ordered over the Internet.

Venter said the U.S. government is developing new guidelines to regulate synthetic DNA companies "to make sure nobody is creating new pathogens or recreating old pathogens."

ETC said there need to be global rules. The problem will be getting everyone to play by the same set of rules. This week, a United Nations panel -- the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice -- recommended that new restrictions on synthetic genomes be written into the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. The United States is not covered by that convention.

The push to rapidly commercialize synthetic life forms also worries critics.

Venter has teamed up with pharmaceutical company Novartis and energy giant Exxon Mobil to try to make new vaccines and sources of energy.

The upside, which Venter likes to stress, could be better health and fuel-producing organisms that could slow global warming by reducing reliance on fossil fuels. The downside, which Thomas tends to dwell on, is that the synthetic organism might get loose and become a "runaway sorcerer's apprentice."

An even bigger concern, Thomas said, is synthetic microbes will have a huge appetite for biomass and plant matter and consume plenty of fertilizer.

He says future factories with vats of artificial life have the potential to put "massive pressure on agricultural and forest land" and compete for fertilizer that is critical for growing food.

However, Venter and his critics do agree on one thing -- that the arrival of the world's first self-replicating synthetic cells has important scientific and philosophical implications.

"We look forward to an expanded discussion," he says.