Orla Keaveney looks at the pros and cons for synthetic life.
THE power that scientific advances have given us would have seemed supernatural, even god-like, only a century ago. We can talk to people on the other side of the world, translate any language into our own, access a million libraries’ worth of information in seconds – and carry the tools to do all these things in our pockets. Not even science fiction could imagine the sorts of abilities we take for granted every day.
Despite all our progress, there are still mysteries that the greatest minds in the world are yet to figure out – a major one being the origins of life itself. Although countless theories have been debated, nobody has ever managed to create a living thing completely from scratch. Some people even take the unsolved riddle of life as evidence that a higher power must exist, that there are some things beyond human understanding.
“Nobody has ever managed to create a living thing completely from scratch”
Synthetic biology is a branch of science that aims to unlock the secrets of creating life. At the moment, the advances have mainly been in manipulating the genes of existing plants and animals – the best-known example being genetically modified organisms (GMOs). DNA has been manipulated to increase crop efficiency, develop cures for diseases, and clone animals like Dolly the Sheep. But instead of using existing life forms as starting points, the ultimate goal of synthetic biology is to let humans invent organisms entirely from non-living components.
The starting point in creating new life is the cell. Often called the “building blocks of life”, cells are present in every organism from bacteria to blue whales. Even creatures as complex as humans begin as microscopic cells, which gradually multiply and combine to form tissues. So far, cells have been known to form spontaneously from non-living chemicals in nature, though studies have not been able to conclusively propose a way to control this process.
Partially artificial genomes (the part of a cell that affects its genetic make-up), have been successfully manufactured in labs, but only by “rewriting” the DNA of an existing bacterium. Scientists are still a long way from forming single cells, not to mention constructing organisms that serve practical functions.
“The ultimate goal of synthetic biology is to let humans invent organisms entirely from non-living components”
If scientists eventually come up with a reliable recipe for creating life, it could have a range of applications far beyond biology. Purpose-built organisms could theoretically produce alternative fuel sources, eat pollutants in water, tackle disease within people’s bodies, or support human life on other planets. However, such radical powers could have unexpected consequences, especially on the already fragile state of Earth’s ecosystem.
Human interference with nature has nearly always ended badly, especially when introducing new creatures: in 1788, when Europeans first settled in Australia, a seemingly innocuous move like introducing rabbits had a disastrous effect on the local wildlife. The rabbit population spiked and monopolised the food resources, contributing more than any other factor to the extinction of native species and remaining a major pest today.
We’d like to believe that humanity has learned from its mistakes, but with climate change deniers still among the White House staff, the pursuit of financial applications for synthetic biology could easily come at the expense of the environment.
“Purpose-built organisms could theoretically produce alternative fuel sources, eat pollutants in water, tackle disease within people’s bodies, or support human life on other planets”
There’s also a question of the cultural implications of such a discovery. Science has been seen as the enemy of religion since the days of Galileo, as new discoveries seemingly undermine the Bible and other sacred teachings. If humans solve the mystery of creating life, which has long been used as proof that a divine being must exist, it could be the death knell for religious faith. The creation of new life forms could also be controversial if we design beings of human-like intelligence and characteristics, which would spark a debate over how their rights compare to ours.
Considering the current progress of synthetic biology, it’s unlikely that we will need to tackle these problems in our lifetimes. However, as contemporary researchers work towards manufacturing life, it’s their duty to consider the impact that their discoveries will have on future generations. If scientists had been afraid to challenge the limits of humanity throughout history, modern society wouldn’t be able to enjoy the resulting advances in healthcare, technology and beyond. Nonetheless when it comes to playing God, we may find that humans simply aren’t meant to handle such power.