Closer than ever to life in a lab

Is the creation of synthetic life around the corner?

In 1990, an enterprising biologist named Craig Venter began a project to map the human genome. His efforts paid off, and his private venture completed the mapping first in a publicized race against the U.S. government’s own project. Now Venter is claiming that he and a team of scientists have made one of the biggest biological breakthroughs ever: They claim they have the ability to create artificial life.

Venter has been experimenting with altering the genetics of bacteria in attempts to create life forms that can help our society, specifically with environmental issues. Venter’s current company, Synthetic Genomics, is trying to find a way to harness genetically modified bacteria to produce energy such as butane or propane. Additionally, bacteria could be engineered to clean up contaminants.

Venter claims he is closer than ever to this goal, and he told a newspaper that he has synthetically assembled a chromosome to his exact specifications. This set of genetic instructions can hypothetically be inserted into a host bacterium and create a new organism. If Venter’s claims are confirmed, and if the process works, the impacts could be unprecedented. With the potential to tailor entire chromosomes, it seems that this could be a monumental breakthrough for the biological sciences.

All the excitement aside, this is also an announcement that deserves our scrutiny. While creating organisms means that there is the potential ability to ensure that all creations are benign, caution must be exhibited. Although Venter’s aim is to aid in the preservation of our planet and our species, there could be unintended ecological or public health consequences. It’s even possible that this technology could be used for terrorist purposes. There needs to be some oversight for this type of genetic manipulation. If Venter’s work is ethical and safe, then we gladly welcome the creation of new organisms to benefit humanity.

Overall, Venter’s work is certainly awe-inspiring and opens the door for continued advances, but it must be done with caution. There is still much to be learned about genetic engineering, and we must not act as if we already know all the answers.