The Creation of a Synthetic Cell Opens New Possibilities and Perhaps New Dangers

Jake Meyer by Jake Meyer

The biotechnology age has progressed at a rapid pace.  Every few years a new discovery in biotechnology leaves us wondering about new possibilities.  In 1997, Dolly the sheep was the first successfully cloned animalIn 2000, the Human Genome Project announced that it had assembled the first working draft of the human genomeAnd now in 2010 a team of researchers has created the first synthetic cell.  But sometimes lost with an eye-opening discovery is the story of Frankenstein and the question posed by Mary Shelley’s novel: How much tinkering should we do?  Or, updated for the 21st century, how should we regulate our new tinkering?

May 20, 2010, Researchers at the Craig Venter Institute created the first self-replicating synthetic bacterial cell.  A synthetic genome, 1.08 million base pairs long was designed by a computer, chemically made in a laboratory, and placed within a bacterium cell.  Through replication of the cell the original genome is lost and only the synthetic genome remains resulting in a new self-replicating cell controlled by the synthetic genome.  The discovery opens the possibility of engineering microbes that produce useful substances, such as vaccines and biofuels.  One possible use of this technology that is being explored is to construct genomes of photosynthetic bacteria to use light energy to produce hydrogen gas from water, which can be used as a fuel source. 

Several experts discussing this discovery have been very positive, describing it as a landmark breakthrough.  Mark Bedau, professor of philosophy and humanities at Reed College described the discovery as an "unprecedented opportunity to learn about life." Arthur Caplan, Professor of bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania said it is "one of the most important scientific achievements in the history of mankind."  Other experts recognized the synthetic cell as an important engineering achievement.  Jim Collins, Professor of biomedical engineering at Boston University says, "The work reported by Venter and his colleagues is an important advance in our ability to re-engineer organisms; it does not represent the making of new life from scratch."

But not everyone is so positive about this new technology.  Environmental group Friends of the Earth has cautioned the use of this new technology.  Eric Hoffman of Friends of the Earth warned that newly engineered species could enter "the natural ecosystem and acting as invasive species, choking out natural living things."  Hoffman stated that "Mr. Venter should stop all further research until sufficient regulations are in place." 

Hoffman is justified in his concern with regulating genetically engineered species.  As we tinker with the genetics of different species, the possible environmental and public health effects are poorly understood.  Consider, for example, the prevalence, yet poorly understood effects of genetically engineered crops.  Industry surveys indicated that 95% of all sugar beets planted in 2009 were genetically engineered.  In fact, genetically engineered crops are so prevalent that farmers complain that only genetically engineered seed is available.  We may lose genetic diversity of our crops as non-genetically engineered crops are out planted and out reproduced by genetically engineered crops.  There is also evidence that some genetically engineered crops could be harmful for long term consumption.  A study of three different genetically engineered varieties of corn suggested that consumption of the genetically engineered corn caused organ damage in rats.  Yet, at the current rate of planting of genetically engineered crops and the reproduction of the crops, genetically engineered corn and other crops could completely replace non-genetically engineered crops.

With technologies that allow for introduction into the ecosystem and continued reproduction, enthusiasm for technological possibilities should be tempered against the possibility for widespread harm, especially considering how much we still have to learn and understand about genetics.  It was once believed that single genes were carriers of single traits, but gene expression is much more complex than that and we still have plenty to learn about the complexities.  This new technology will provide a new tool for the study of genetics and allows for the re-engineering of organisms, but as Craig Venter and other researchers tinker with genetically engineered organisms, studies should be conducted to confirm that these genetically engineered organisms will not be Frankenstein monsters run amok on our environment and the public’s health.

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