Craig Venter and Hamilton Smith, the two American biologists who unravelled the first DNA sequence of a living organism (a bacterium) in 1995, have made a bacterium that has an artificial genome—creating a living creature with no ancestor… Pedants may quibble that only the DNA of the new beast was actually manufactured in a laboratory; the researchers had to use the shell of an existing bug to get that DNA to do its stuff. Nevertheless, a Rubicon has been crossed. It is now possible to conceive of a world in which new bacteria (and eventually, new animals and plants) are designed on a computer and then grown to order.
The usual suspects will doubtless grumble, but, writing in the Guardian, a slightly over-enthusiastic Ken Macleod gets in his response first:
It’s a tremendous achievement of human ingenuity and skill. And there’s something wonderfully confirmatory of mechanistic materialism in the building of a genome from chemically synthesised molecules, that genome running a cell, and that cell replicating to a point where no trace of the original cell’s cytoplasm is left in its descendants. This lays to rest, with a satisfying finality, the ghost of vitalism – the spooky, whiffy doctrine that there is some essence of life not captured by “reductionist” biochemistry.
He notes that we can expect the “usual TV studio parade of clergy” giving their opinions. Well, why not? Macleod’s “why them?” is a cheap shot, but he redeems himself by adding:
More significant than the clerics are their secular successors, the ethicists – paid to worry so we don’t have to. They’re already on the case.
“Ethicists” are a modern curse, typified best by that waste of taxpayer dollars, the “President’s Council on Bioethics” set up by George W. Bush, and its successor, Obama’s “Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.” Needless to say, the busybody-in-chief has asked the commission to investigate the “implications” of Venter and Smith’s work:
I ask that the Commission complete its study within six months and provide me with a report with its findings, as well as any recommendations and suggestions for future study that the Commission deems appropriate. Given the importance of this issue, I request that the Commission consult with a range of constituencies, including scientific and medical communities, faith communities, and business and nonprofit organizations.
It is vital that we as a society consider, in a thoughtful manner, the significance ofthis kind of scientific development. With the Commission’s collective expertise in the areas of science, policy, and ethical and religious values, I am confident that it will carry out this responsibility with the care and attention it deserves.
Oh, good grief.