Tuesday, May 25, 2010

"Frankenstein" or Scientific Breakthrough?: U.S. Biologist Creates Controversy with Artificial DNA

By Hilary White

May 21, 2010 (LifeSiteNews.com) – An American pioneer biologist and entrepreneur, Craig Venter of the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) in Maryland and California, has created an international media stir with his announcement yesterday that he has created the world’s first cell with artificially constructed DNA.

Despite media reports to the contrary, the researchers did not “create new life,” but instead artificially constructed an existing sequence of DNA of a naturally occurring bacterium and reproduced it in existing cells.

In the study, published in the peer-review journal Science, the researchers copied the genome, or complete genetic sequence, of an existing bacterium. They sequenced its genetic code and then used “synthesis machines” to chemically construct a copy. The new DNA was inserted into cells of a different type of bacteria. These reproduced daughter cells with both the natural and artificial DNA. The bacteria with the artificially constructed DNA replicated over a billion times.

“This is the first time any synthetic DNA has been in complete control of a cell,” said Venter, who likened the process to creating software for a computer. He told the BBC, “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.”

Venter, who has been working for years to create artificial life forms, responded in his autobiography to criticisms that he has gone too far and is “playing God,” saying, “I always reply that - so far at least - we are only reconstructing a diminished version of what is out there in nature.”

“I think they're going to potentially create a new industrial revolution,” he said. “If we can really get cells to do the production that we want, they could help wean us off oil and reverse some of the damage to the environment by capturing carbon dioxide.”

Media has responded to the report with near-hysteria, with headlines referring to “Frankenstein” experiments and warnings against “playing God.” The Daily Mail asked, “Could it wipe out humanity?”

The Mail quoted Professor Julian Savulescu, an Oxford University ethicist, who said, “Venter is creaking open the most profound door in humanity's history, potentially peeking into its destiny. He is not merely copying life artificially or modifying it by genetic engineering. He is going towards the role of God: creating artificial life that could never have existed.”

“This could be used in the future to make the most powerful bioweapons imaginable. The challenge is to eat the fruit without the worm,” he added.

Despite the frenzied media reaction, however, responses from religious leaders have been more measured. Vatican officials were reserved in their judgment of the breakthrough, saying that it was the result of God’s gift of human intelligence that needs to be used correctly.

The head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life, Archbishop Rino Fisichella, gave a non-committal response, saying, “If it is used toward the good, to treat pathologies, we can only be positive. If it turns out not to be ... useful, to respect the dignity of the person, then our judgment would change.”

“We look at science with great interest. But we think above all about the meaning that must be given to life,” said Fisichella. “We can only reach the conclusion that we need God, the origin of life.”

The cardinal at the head of the Italian’s bishops’ conference, Angelo Bagnasco, said the invention is “further sign of intelligence, God's gift to understand creation and be able to better govern it.”

Bagnasco told ANSA news agency, “On the other hand, intelligence can never be without responsibility. Any form of intelligence and any scientific acquisition ... must always be measured against the ethical dimension, which has at its heart the true dignity of every person.”

URL: http://www.lifesitenews.com/ldn/2010/may/10052106.html

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