Reality and Hype about Synthetic Life
By Dr. Basheer A. Khan
Garden Grove , CA


“Heading for Synthetic Life” was the sensational media headline on May 21, 2010 given to the story of success achieved by a group of scientist in replicating a computerized genome in a living cell. The scientists in this venture were modest in calling it “a defining moment in biology”. It is interesting to study this and other such advancements in science to understand the reality and hyperbolism injected into them to promote some ulterior agendas.

Dr. Venter and his team of 20 scientists are reported to have worked for 10 years and spent about 40 million dollars in creating a genome in their lab and planting it into an existing bacterium which causes mastitis in goats. What happened subsequently is described by Dr. Venter in his own words: “We were ecstatic when the cells booted up with all the watermarks in place,” Dr. Venter told the Guardian. “It is a living species now, part of our planet’s inventory of life.”

The team now plans to use the “synthetic” organism to work out the minimum number of genes needed for life to exist. From this, new micro-organisms could be made by bolting on additional genes to produce useful chemicals, break down pollutants, or produce proteins for use in vaccines.

Ken MacLeod , a science fiction writer and a techno utopian, says that this experiment has put to rest the ghost of “vitalism” which supposes some ‘essence’ to life not captured by “reductionist” biochemistry. “The tiny machine does not need the tiniest ghost,” he says. He further writes in The Guardian: The potential of this experiment goes way beyond synthesizing fuel, vaccine or eat up oil spill, and goes to produce every foodstuff we eat every fiber we wear, every floor we walk and every roof we shelter under.  He terms it as “Mechanistic Materialism”. To him this is the real intelligently designed creation that should satisfy even the creationists and the theists.

When events like the landing of man on the Moon and the robotic jaunt of Mars, which were telecast live for everyone to see, were doubted not just by the skeptics but also by some of the knowledgeable people in space science, this microscopic event will definitely have its own detractors. Julian Savulescu, Professor of Ethics at the Oxford University, said: “Venter is not merely copying life artificially, or modifying it radically by genetic engineering. He is going towards the role of a god: creating artificial life that could never have existed naturally.”

By far the most balanced view on the subject was presented in the editorial of the most respected Indian daily, The Hindu:

“… But it is quite a stretch to speak at this stage of the production of synthetic life. The synthetic genome was based on the naturally occurring genome of the bacterium Mycoplasma mycoides (with certain modifications). Moreover, the genome, in order to function, had to be put into a living cell, not one that was artificially created.”

Dr. Venter “has not created life, only mimicked it,” commented Nobel Laureate David Baltimore. It is much more likely that synthetic genomes will be used in the coming years to generate novel gene combinations. Scientists have long been able to modify genomes by inserting and deleting genes. Genetically engineered Bt-cotton plants, for instance, carry genes taken from soil bacteria. Several genes have been introduced into a bacterium so that it can produce the precursor of the anti-malarial drug artemisinin. ….. Concerns have been expressed over the possibility of the technique being misused to produce dangerous pathogens and the artificially engineered organisms escaping into the wild and contaminating the natural gene pool. Governments and society need to find ways of maintaining oversight so that benefits of the technology are harnessed and its abuse prevented.”

Three questions have been raised in the narrative given above. Does this experiment pose any risk to mankind by introducing dangerous pathogens either by design or by mutation? Is this experiment really so useful as to result in the ‘mechanistic materialism’ where the human needs will be produced through this “Created Life”? Are the scientists acting god by indulging in such experiments?

We are at the very initial stage of the process to say anything about the first two questions and only time will give an answer to these questions.

Ken MacLeod thinks that “biosphere comes up with natural resistance to entirely new organisms every day”. Therefore the worry of this experiment leading into a misadventure of “bio error or bio terror” is not as much as the threat of the biological weapons which are deliberately designed, contends Ken MacLeod.

If we can substitute our natural material wealth with the mechanistic materials produced by this ‘synthetic life’, it will be a welcome help in meeting the needs of growing population. But for this we should wait and watch to see how long this experimental cell will roll and how long its progeny will last without any further intervention at great financial cost. If its chromosomes weaken due to the stress of repeated divisions and fizzles out soon, then hope of all the harvest we are expecting from this will be a dream unfulfilled.

The following three points mentioned in the editorial of Hindu refute the suggestion about the third question; if the scientists are acting God by carrying out such experiments.

1.  The synthetic genome was based on the naturally occurring genome of the bacterium Mycoplasma mycoides (with certain modifications).

2.  The genome, in order to function, had to be put into a living cell, not one that was artificially created.

3. Dr. Venter “has not created life, only mimicked it. (David Baltimore)

God originates life, and sustains it, He does not mimic it. Just on the claims of mimicking life one can’t claim to be god or be accused of acting god.

“Synthetic Genome Survives in the Host Cell” would have been the accurate headline for this promising event. Then this would not have attracted enough attention to get billions of dollars from the gullible investors on Wall Street to finance the promising industry of the future. Therefore all the hype was essential irrespective of the reality of the claims. Promises are promising, delivering them is not important. When it is easy to escape deleterious consequences of unfulfilled promises under the alibi of good faith then we can keep people busy in more new promises making them forget the lessons of earlier ones. A people who are conditioned to consider life as a gamble, and who are willing to be subjects for any risk for the sake of an adventure, anything less would be lackluster.

Similar hype was created once before by naming a baby delivered by Dr. Louise Brown in 1978 as Test Tube Baby. The fact of this case was that the doctor took the gametes from a couple who was unable to conceive through normal intercourse. Dr. Louise mated these gametes in a Petri dish, and implanted the resulting zygote into the uterus of the mother for a normal pregnancy. This process is technically called In Vitro Fertilization (IVF). As this term could not have drawn attention of the public to the revolutionary technique, the media publicized it as the Test Tube Baby. Because of this hype the technique was introduced to infertile couples instantaneously and pushed them to fertility clinics in the hope of enjoying parenthood. Thus a new industry of fertility clinics was established in a matter of few years.

When Adam was created he was crowned with the gift of all knowledge (V 31 Ch.2). This was essential for him to discharge the role of vicegerency for which he was created. This knowledge will keep unfolding on the progeny of Adam with every passing day to help them perform their role of vicegerency.  This is definitely a matter of self- gratification but not of self-glorification. Glory belongs only to Him who has all the knowledge and bestows from His knowledge to whomsoever He wants and to the extent that He wants (V 255 Ch2), and ingrains it in their genes to manifest when it is appropriate.

Let us use this knowledge, the environment, and the materials given to us by Him for the good of mankind, which is our duty as His vicegerent. By corrupting religion and the administrative machinery we have caused immense hardship to the world, let us not add to its woes by corrupting science also for our selfish gains.




Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.