News Stories

Artificial Life

We can create it, but can we patent it? - It's big news: Scientists in the US have succeeded in developing the first living cell to be controlled entirely by synthetic DNA. The researchers constructed a bacterium's "genetic software" and transplanted it into a host cell. Will the next step be building a human Frankenstein?

In BBC News, Victoria Gill quotes researcher Craig Venter as saying, "We've now been able to take our synthetic chromosome and transplant it into a recipient cell, a different organism. As soon as this new software goes into the cell, the cell reads [it] and converts into the species specified in that genetic code. This is the first time any synthetic DNA has been in complete control of a cell." Once the new DNA is introduced into the cell, the cell starts replicating--in this case, over a billion times--producing copies of itself, and a new form of life was born.

Not everyone is happy about this. BBC quotes bioethicist Julian Savulescu as saying that the potential of this science was "in the far future, but real and significant, but the risks are also unparalleled. We need new standards of safety evaluation for this kind of radical research and protections from military or terrorist misuse and abuse. These could be used in the future to make the most powerful bioweapons imaginable. The challenge is to eat the fruit without the worm."

But Venter dismisses the terrorism threat. BBC quotes him as saying, "That was reviewed extensively in the US in a report from MIT and a Washington defence think tank, indicating that there were very small new dangers from this. Most people are in agreement that there is a slight increase in the potential for harm. But there's an exponential increase in the potential benefit to society. [For instance, the flu vaccine you'll get next year could be developed by these processes." When it comes to building an artificial brain, scientists will need to rely on quantum mechanics, and in EE Times, R. Colin Johnson reports that scientists in China have succeeded in teleporting the world's longest string of entangled photons.

If you create matter, do you need to worry about anti-matter? Matter and anti-matter were both created at the same time by the Big Bang, but while we're familiar with matter (which is all around us), we can't find the antimatter. When a particle and its anti-particle collide, produce energy, plus new particles and anti-particles, but right now, antimatter is only created with instruments like CERN. However, a new experiment may show us what happened all the antimatter in nature.

The new DZero experiment at Fermilab in the US discovered that these collisions produce pairs of matter particles slightly more often than they produce anti-matter particles. In BBC News, Paul Rincon quotes researcher Stefan Soldner-Rembold as saying, "Many of us felt goose bumps when we saw the result. We knew we were seeing something beyond what we have seen before and beyond what current theories can explain."

In the May 27th edition of the Financial Times, John Harris writes an editorial in which he says of Venter's work: "Some still doubt we should be doing this work at all. The claim to have created synthetic life has been characterize pejoratively as playing "God." This is a poor substitute for an argument. One obvious consideration is that we would not have to play God if the deity herself had not made such an abject mess of things. Nature, however created, is a mixed blessing. Tsunamis, earthquakes and asteroid strikes are natural--but this should not stop us trying to mitigate their effects. Droughts, viruses, bacteria and parasites are all painfully natural. Nothing has been more God-like than our eradication of smallpox and near eradication of polio, but few sane people regret this."

And if you DO manage to create life, who owns the patent? Would ownership give a single scientist a monopoly on genetic engineering? Researchers John Sulston and Craig Venter clashed over this a decade ago: Sulston wanted the information to be widely available, while Venter wanted it to remain among a small group of scientists. In BBC News, Pallab Ghosh quotes Sulston as saying, "The confrontation 10 years ago was about data release. We said that this was the human genome and it should be in the public domain. And I'm extremely glad we managed to pull this out of the bag."

They are clashing again as Venter tries to apply for patents on an artificially created organism nicknamed Synthia. BBC quotes Sulston as saying that patenting would be "extremely damaging: "I've read through some of these patents and the claims are very, very broad indeed. I hope very much these patents won't be accepted because they would bring genetic engineering under the control of the J. Craig Venter Institute. They would have a monopoly on a whole range of techniques."

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