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msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/20/2010 2:31:08 PM ET 2010-05-20T18:31:08
COMMENTARY

What does it mean to be alive?

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That’s a weighty question that scientists, theologians and philosophers have been wrangling over for eons. Most have concluded that the wondrous nature of what permits life is a mystery that science never could penetrate.

Until now.

What seemed to be an intractable riddle — and one with significant religious overtones — has been solved. A research team led by J. Craig Venter, Hamilton Smith, Clyde Hutchison, and Daniel Gibson at the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Md., has just announced in the journal Science that they have created new living bacteria from non-living parts.

The scientists have crafted what they’re calling a “synthetic cell” from a set of genes they decoded, artificially combined and then stuck into the cored-out remains of another bacterial cell.

The Venter team has been working for many years to create a synthetic bacterium. Having built a synthetic virus some years ago, they have now shown that they can take the next step.

A truly living thing
Some argued that making a virus was not a demonstration that life is reducible to its subsidiary parts. Viruses have to use bacteria to reproduce. No one can say that making a bacterium, a much more independent, complex, self-replicating critter, is not synthesizing a truly living thing.

Why did the Venter team do it? Well, it was in part to resolve that age-old debate about reducing life to the sum of its parts. They wanted to show it could be done. More important, however, is that the techniques of gene synthesis involved in this remarkable achievement hold out much promise for humankind. 

Synthetic biology should permit scientists to make microbes that can solve many of our most pressing problems. Building bacteria that secrete food edible by other tiny ocean creatures will provide us with more to eat as the now-endangered ocean food chain is rebuilt. There could be bacteria that digest oil from leaks and spills, or bacteria that consume cholesterol and other dangerous substances in our bodies. There could even be bacteria that attack other microbes that cause so much death and illness. All those are in the offing, and that is all to the good.

Oversight will be vital
That said, there is great need for more oversight of this hugely powerful technology. Bad guys making nasty bugs or scientists who are not very careful about where they make new microbes or where they release them could pose serious risks to our health and environment.

Venter and his group were careful to use tiny molecular changes to “watermark” or stamp their creation. Any scientist or company who uses the techniques of synthetic biology in the future ought to be required to use similar identifying markers. If an artificial life form escapes, it must be easy to identify in order to hold those who made it accountable.

The regulatory, social and legal challenges can be solved.  It will take both national and international commitments to do so, but the risk of inaction is greater than the risks of moving forward given the tremendous benefits this technology promises.

The real fallout from the Venter group’s achievement is subtle but more powerful. The scientists are chipping away at the view that there is something unique and unknowable about life itself. From this day forward, we know that the right chemical messages, presented in the right order and put in the right chemical context, can produce life. 

Some may find this discovery a bit deflating. Others may worry that a line has been crossed in creating a new living thing. I think that none of this is true.

The dignity of life has never rested in its mystery but in its remarkable diversity, complexity and ability to manifest itself in all manner of conditions and circumstances. Coming to understand how life works, even taking small steps toward creating it, crosses no line. It is up to us to put this knowledge to good use. If there is any mystery, it is whether we will succeed.

Arthur Caplan is director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.

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