Frankenstein Shocker: Real Scientists Create New Lifeform
If you haven't heard about one of the most shocking discoveries in recent memory…
Craig Venter, one of the scientists instrumental in decoding the human genome, and his team of researchers have created an artificial genome and plopped it into a bacterial cell. In effect, they've created a new life form.
I'll stop for a moment and let that sink in.
They've taken the genome — the complete set of DNA — from a microorganism and modified it beyond recognition. They've added and subtracted genes till they have something that has never existed before and never will outside of a lab. Or at least that's the plan. Then they've put that DNA back into the cell it came out of. And that, my friends, changed the organism into something completely different from what it began life as.
Like taking a pig and turning it into a chicken, only on a microscopic scale. Or more aptly, like taking a pig and turning it into a purple unicorn with a bird's beak — something that doesn't and shouldn't exist in the first place.
I keep coming back to this story, and each time I'm just as shocked. I can only think, "My God, what have we done?"
Has science finally overstepped its bounds?
I love science. I particularly love biology. And I know that some of the most important scientific discoveries have come from actions that were considered horrific at the time. Our knowledge of anatomy comes from bold souls who did what was unthinkable — not to mention illegal — in their day: they dissected dead bodies to see how they work. Anatomists were once considered ghouls, not scientists. Yet if it hadn't been for the pioneers who did this kind of thing we'd still be living with mediaeval medicine.
But science has always had a God complex too. For most of history — even modern history — that God complex was kept somewhat in check by religion. There were some places that even science wouldn't go. Yet as society has become increasingly secular, that moral check has fallen by the wayside. And quite frankly, science has nearly achieved the status of religion in the modern world.
There are an unsettling number of now-routine scientific and medical practices that are, in my opinion, tantamount to playing God. "Editing" DNA is one of them. Some may call me overly conservative, and point to all the genetic diseases that might one day be cured by gene editing, and some do. But this…this goes so far beyond gene "editing" that there's no comparison. This is quite literally playing creator of life. And the goal, according to Venter, is to do just that.
If you think GMO food is scary, wait till you hear this
Venter and his team set out to "create" an organism with the fewest genes possible. With no more genes than what it needed to actually stay alive. They wanted, in essence, to create a template for life. Why did they want this template? So they could create other things from it. They imagine creating bacteria that can churn out chemicals or drugs. Says one of the researchers,
"Our long-term vision has been to design and build synthetic organisms on demand."
And make no mistake, this isn't about bettering mankind or anything noble like that. This is about making a profitable product, and nothing else. Venter was one of the original scientists involved in the Human Genome Project. This was the completely non-profit effort to map the entirety of human DNA back in the 90's. But Venter left the HGP to closet himself in his lab and set up for profit. He was still working on decoding DNA, but he thought he should make a buck instead of merely make a grand contribution to science.
And for the past 20 years, he's been working on creating a synthetic genome. The first "breakthrough" came in 2010 when his team used DNA to turn one species of bacteria into another.
Yes. They changed one living creature into a completely different one. And now they've changed that same living creature into something completely new.
The artificial creation has 473 genes, the smallest number of anything alive. And of those, the researchers still have no idea what 31% actually do. The microbe whose DNA they started with is a disease-causing germ. It infects cows, goats, and sheep and lives in their stomachs. Now we have a new creature, created from a pathogen, that could do...anything. They really don't have a clue.
Because this life form has never existed before.
And though the researchers claim that the microbes they work with are "too weak to survive outside the lab," with 31% of the genome doing who-knows-what, how can they be sure?
I hope you find this whole scenario as shocking as I do. Although there's not much you or I can actually do about it, I think it's important to know the boundaries science is willing to push — and why. And if science is willing to actually play God to the point of creating artificial life, what's next? I shudder to think.
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