Pharyngula

“Playing God”

The Newsweek cover story is on recent efforts to create life in the laboratory, and of course they call this “playing God”. Haven’t they got the message yet? “Playing God” is where you do absolutely nothing, take credit for other entities’ work, and don’t even exist — scientists don’t aspire to such a useless status. Besides, creating life is mundane chemistry, no supernatural powers required.

It’s a curious article. There’s some solid discussion of ongoing work on synthetic biology, with Craig Venter and George Church as the stars. These fellows and others are confident (and rightfully so, I say) that they’ll soon be able to take advantage of molecular technology to build a microorganism from scratch: type a desired sequence into the computer controlling the DNA synthesizer, load up the device with some A, T, C, and G and a set of enzymes, press a button, and a little later you’ve got strands of DNA with your genes written onto them. Church is aiming for a streamlined cell with a 113Kb genome; it’s a difficult exercise in practical engineering, not a deep conceptual examination of basic biology, and I’m confident he’ll achieve it.

Venter is even more ambitious. He wants to build synthetic organisms that have a specific goal, bioproduction of substances we humans would find useful, like fuels and plastics. That’s harder — now you’re talking about tweaking a complex biochemistry that we don’t fully understand, shaping it in new directions, and doing so to produce outcomes that may not be entirely to the organism’s advantage. There really isn’t enough serious critical discussion of the scientific problems that they face, and instead the article flops desperately into the dithering theological mode of dredging up archaic objections and feeding a cultural dread of Frankenstein science. It’s present in the title, and it’s there in a silly poll (which didn’t work for me) they’re running in the sidebar: Do you think it is a good idea to let scientists create life in the laboratory?

They conclude with some absurd objections. First they consult some people associated with science.

Not all scientists agree that SynBio will work. (A minority that holds strong religious beliefs voices the greatest skepticism.) Francis Collins, the director of the American portion of the Human Genome Project, is a bitter opponent of Venter’s free-wheeling approach to biotechnology (the two men were forced to accept equal credit for completing the human-genome sequence on the White House lawn with Bill Clinton). “I find it very hard to believe that, starting from scratch, we can somehow come up with a better [biological] system–one that’s going to have much success,” he said in an interview with Nova. Leon Kass, former chairman of President George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics, thinks SynBio will fail at a more basic level. Scientists, he says, are “inherently incapable of understanding life as lived–not only by human beings, but by any living thing.”

Collins’ objection is irrelevant—they aren’t trying to build a better organism in the sense of one that is generally competitive with, for instance, E. coli. They’re building to a much narrower specification: “better” in the sense that it is simpler and more amenable to experiment, or “better” at producing specific metabolic products that we find useful.

Kass is…well, Kass is Kass. Confused and confusing, mistaking his theological preconceptions for material evidence. I do not think Kass is capable of understanding understanding.

From the nay-sayers with scientific credentials, they move to nay-sayers of even more flocculent substance, the theologians and ideologues.

The idea that only God can create life is arguably even more fundamental to Judeo-Christian dogma than the 17th-century notion that Earth was at the center of the universe. Pope Benedict XVI has expressed outrage at scientists who “modify the very grammar of life as planned and willed by God.” The pope elaborated in an address in 2006: “To take God’s place, without being God, is insane arrogance, a risky and dangerous venture.” Green activists echo this disdain. “Synthetic biology is like genetic engineering on steroids,” warns Greenpeace representative Doreen Stabinsky.

Please, please stop quoting the pope. No one should care what the cranky, irrelevant figurehead for an obsolete superstitious dogma says about science—he’s no more a knowledgeable authority on this matter than RuPaul, and it doesn’t matter which of them has the more fabulous wardrobe. Seriously, he’s nothing but a sour old man yelling at those damn kids to get off his lawn.

And this is Newsweek’s comeback?

Like most biologists, SynBio practitioners have a more materialist view of life. “Life is not magic,” says Princeton’s Ron Weiss, an electrical engineer who now concentrates on genetic programming of cells. He thinks older biologists like Kass have not kept up with advances in science. Of course, SynBio scientists haven’t quite proven that a cell is a kind of biochemical machine, and religious biologists like Kass and Collins hang on tightly to this uncertainty. Proof will come when the first discrete, self-maintaining, self-replicating, stable organic creature—Life 2.0—is created from scratch in the lab.

Weiss is right: no magic, no vitalism, no ghosts puttering about in the cytoplasm. I highlighted that one sentence because it’s so absurd: we don’t deal in proofs, for one thing, but if there’s anything we can be certain of, it’s that cells are biochemical machines, tiny reaction chambers burbling away and churning through metabolic processes. If Kass and Collins really are clinging to uncertainty about that — and I’m inclined to expect that it’s actually the reporter imputing those ideas to them — then they’d have to be bigger knuckleheads than I imagined. I’m unclear what they expect will happen when investigators assemble the machinery of the cell — that it will sit there inert until infused with the sap from lignum vitae, or that it will need to be kick-started by a blessing from the local priest? Piffle. It’s physics and chemistry. Get the recipe right, and that’s all that matters.

Comments

  1. #1 Alejandro
    May 30, 2007

    No matter how much you puny biologists would like to “play God”, we win in that field ;).

  2. #2 Alejandro
    May 30, 2007

    Argghh. That was supposed to read: we physicists win in that field.

  3. #3 Ric
    May 30, 2007

    Uh oh, the article contains the word “machine.” This ensures that it will be quote-mined by IDiots.

  4. #4 Reginald Selkirk
    May 30, 2007

    I think it’s time for God to stop playing God.

  5. #5 Keith Sader
    May 30, 2007

    Alejandro beat me to it! Dang.

    I want to create universes where I’ve made scientist evolve that create universes! Mwuwhwhahahahahahaha

  6. #6 MR
    May 30, 2007

    A man claiming to be God’s representative on earth really shouldn’t say “To take God’s place, without being God, is insane arrogance, a risky and dangerous venture.” I wonder if the irony is noted amongst the faithful.

  7. #7 Greg Peterson
    May 30, 2007

    If I were going to play god, I’d want to have sex with beautiful mortal women, but not the creepy ghost way like Jehovah, but old school, like turning myself into a swan or bull or shower of some kind. And speaking of showers, I’d make up some really absurd rules everyone has to follow to be “ritually pure,” like you have to stand on one foot while peeing. You, too, ladies. The infirm get a dispensation. And I was just trying to think of something I could command be trimmed off babies, but it’s hard to beat (no pun intended) that penis flap one. How about little toes? They’re not SO necessary. And here’s the punchline: cut the little toe off the foot you have to stand on to pee, making balance just a little tougher. I think I would be a hilarious trickster deity, not like that bipolar Munchausen by proxy patient the Christians go on about.

  8. #8 n
    May 30, 2007

    I go to school for biotech and a lot of people, including some high school friends have asked me why do I want to “play god.” Disgusting.

  9. #9 Ginger Yellow
    May 30, 2007

    I really don’t see how creating a cell “from scratch” is playing God any more than genetic engineering or animal breeding. I hate to break it Collins and Kass, but Jersey cows and golden retrievers didn’t exist 10,000 years ago. Obviously there’s a qualitative difference between the techniques, but it’s nothing to do with the “meddling”.

  10. #10 Wedge
    May 30, 2007

    Hm. I thought the Christian religion encouraged the creation of life and control of nature? “Be fruitful and multiply”, “and he was given dominion over the beasts of the field and the birds of the sea” (or something like that, who the hell cares).

    And it’s sex free, unless Ventner and Church have a problem focusing on work in the lab. Why wouldn’t the Pope support this?

  11. #11 Jen Phillips
    May 30, 2007

    “If we don’t play god, who will?” I love it! James Watson’s propensity for spouting harsh and controversial pronouncements have made him seem downright Falwellian at times, but I’ve got to give him props for this little bon mot.

  12. #12 K
    May 30, 2007

    I create life in my fridge all the time. If that’s all it takes to play god, where’s my tithe?

  13. #13 SWT
    May 30, 2007

    These fellows and others are confident (and rightfully so, I say) that they’ll soon be able to take advantage of molecular technology to build a microorganism from scratch: type a desired sequence into the computer controlling the DNA synthesizer, load up the device with some A, T, C, and G and a set of enzymes, press a button, and a little later you’ve got strands of DNA with your genes written onto them.

    You’re probably aware that we’ve been able to do this with viruses for several years:
    http://www.genomenewsnetwork.org/articles/07_02/polio_create.shtml

  14. #14 Sonja
    May 30, 2007

    Life is “physics and chemistry”? Careful, PZ, you’re going to blog yourself out of a job.

  15. #15 Bronze Dog
    May 30, 2007

    Do you think it is a good idea to let scientists create life in the laboratory?

    Well, as long as they don’t contaminate the equipment or sterilize it after, I don’t really care where they—

    Oh, wait, you mean creating life the new way, not the messy old-fashioned way.

  16. #16 Sean
    May 30, 2007

    You missed on, PZ.

    I enjoyed the well deserved dismissals of three of the four quoted opponents to engineering life. The scientist derailed by falling water, the conservative lackey, and the god botherer in the funny hat all got the commentary they deserved.

    Where was the snark for Greenpeace? While we focus on the right wing nut jobs, there are left wing nutjobs opposing biological research with just as much fervor. And some of them are more likely to use firebombs to make their point.

  17. #17 Jim Harrison
    May 30, 2007

    Speaking of creating life: Stuart Kauffman, the AI guy, used to talk about a possible experiment in which a thousand or so organic chemical species would be sealed together in a tank to determine whether a rudimentary kind of metabolism would appear spontaneously (order for nothing). That rather alchemical program is more interesting to me than Venter’s scheme, which, after all, is an attempt to see if intelligent design works. Has anybody followed up on Kauffman’s suggestion?

  18. #18 Jessica Guilford
    May 30, 2007

    Wouldn’t it make more sense to start with microorganisms that already produce something kind of useful in the hydrocarbon vein, mutate them, and select them for producing larger amounts, or more desirable hydrocarbons? I mean, as opposed to trying to build a whole biochemistry from scratch. What’s wrong with a little artificial selection?

  19. #19 dorid
    May 30, 2007

    My only concern is what they’ll do with this ‘stuff’. Seems to me we make a lot of stuff that only messes the world up more…. medicines whose side effects long term are worse than the disease, antibacterial agents that encourage the growth of stronger bacterial strains by weeding out the weaker, introducing one species to control another and having THAT get out of control. I worry about what we’ll get when we have living alternatives in use that are self replicating.

    OK, so I suppose in one way that is buying into the Frankenstein hysteria.

    Do I think we should stop? No, because I also think there are important possible benefits. It just seems a little risker than what we’ve done in the past.

  20. #20 386sx
    May 30, 2007

    Pope Benedict XVI has expressed outrage at scientists who “modify the very grammar of life as planned and willed by God.”

    Lol, how come he doesn’t express outrage that God didn’t plan and will the grammar of life a little better so people didn’t have to mess with it so much. I don’t see the Pope expressing outrage at other stuff planned and willed by God, like earthquakes and hurricanes and the Devil and hell for example. Anyway, let’s look at the bright side folks: Rosie might be gone, but there is a good chance she might be replaced by Whoopi Goldberg, the greatest comedy legend in all of history.

  21. #21 Tulse
    May 30, 2007

    While Greenpeace may not be the model of rationality, we do have plenty of examples of human intervention in biological systems that have gone awry (e.g., kudzu and starlings in the US, rabbits and cane toads in Australia). I think synthetic biology is terribly cool, but concerns about possible negative impacts, especially in released organisms, are not ludicrous. Rudy Rucker’s companion essay addresses why these issues are not likely to be problematic, but I think it’s still worth talking about, and ensuring that there are safeguards in place.

    On the other hand, the objections of the religious folks are based purely on fantasy. That makes them far worse in my book. (And just ask abortion doctors and gays if religious wackos are non-violent.)

  22. #22 Arnosium Upinarum
    May 30, 2007

    As long as people embrace the religiously inspired notion that life is invested with some special or supernatural attribute or “force” (the whole reason for the popular distinction between “animate” and “inanimate” matter) they’ll be scared s***less of anything that remotely suggests that scientists can create it from scratch too. Whatever it is.

    Nothing there though. Never was.

  23. #23 tristero
    May 30, 2007

    Sean,

    Oh, the good old days when there actually were influential leftwing nutjobs! Whoops, wait a minute, I’m trying to recall, help me out here. When was the last time a left wing nutjob ran the EPA? Or was invited to the White House? Or were caught, as the rightwing nutjobs at Enron were, gouging consumers with fake energy shortages? Or faked or witheld government information about global warming. Take your time, Sean. I’d love to have a list of these people.

    BTW, I just loved how you managed to mention Greenpeace within a mere sentence and a half of a comment about firebombs. Nifty association, that.

    But it is true that leftwing nutjobs actually do resort to firebombs all the time even if it’s a sheer canard to associate such tactics with Greenpeace. Remember Oklahoma City?

    Oh, I forgot, that was a right wing nut job – actually a rightwing religious nutjob. Who was quite upset because he believed some other rightwing religious nutjobs had been killed by leftwing commie socialist atheists at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.

    But, well, I’m sure there are some leftwing nutjobs running around. Have to be. But y’know something funny, Sean? There seem to be maybe 20 to 30 anti-science rightwing nut jobs for every single left wing nutjobs. And those 20 to 30 rightwing nutjobs are being paid with your tax dollars and mine. ‘Cause they’re in the Bush administration.

    But, hey, let’s waste time elevating their status way beyond their influence. It’s only, to coin a phrase, fair and balanced.

  24. #24 Warren
    May 30, 2007

    The pope elaborated in an address in 2006: “To take God’s place, without being God, is insane arrogance, a risky and dangerous venture.” Green activists echo this disdain. “Synthetic biology is like genetic engineering on steroids,” warns Greenpeace representative Doreen Stabinsky.

    It’s refreshing to see Greenpeace lumped in with the Nazi pope. They’re both doctrinally opposed to biotech, and neither has a rational reason for that opposition.

  25. #25 Arnosium Upinarum
    May 30, 2007

    dorid says: “I worry about what we’ll get when we have living alternatives in use that are self replicating.”

    A little tardy, aren’t you?

  26. #26 factician
    May 30, 2007

    jessica,

    Your proposal would make sense, but for a few problems:

    1) Most (>99%) of bacterial species are impossible to cultivate in the lab.

    2) Of the few bacteria that are able to be cultivated in the lab, most of them don’t grow very well in the lab.

    3) Some of the metabolic processes that folks are engineering don’t originate in bacteria (some are from plants and animals – harder to grow in the lab).

    Basically, what synthetic biology folks are trying to do is to strip down the microbes that we can easily grow, remove any metabolic pathways that are “wasteful” (i.e. not useful in the laboratory context) and add back in any metabolic pathways that they’re interested in.

    It’s not quite as grandiose as “creating life”, but if you don’t say “creating life”, you don’t get to be on the cover of Newsweek.

  27. #27 Casey
    May 30, 2007

    Yep, I agree with you Sean. Reading that article I was getting excited to hear PZ lambaste Greenpeace, but alas it didn’t come. I guess he was going for the low-hanging fruit. Why the heck would Greenpeace care about this issue. I’m firmly beginning to believe that some environmental activists are motivated by a naturalistic religion. Anything that is natural is perfect and imbued with a special significance. This reminds me of an evolutionary biologist professor I had at the University of Washington, whose research site was fire-bombed by the so-called Earth Liberation Front because he was selectively breeding trees (not even genetic engineering) to grow faster so we could use up less lands for forestry, an admirable goal. He lost all of his research and he was the nicest, most moral guy. I still can’t fathom, why these environmental terrorists would be against that.

  28. #28 dAVE
    May 30, 2007

    Interesting stuff – I recall reading something a couple of years ago about someone trying to make a minimal living cell. Maybe it’s the same people.

    The idea was to figure out what the minimum required genome for life was (not viruses – it needed to be able to replicate without using other life-forms machinery).

    That way, you could have a basic biological machine that you could add to to make various molecules – and possibly avoid unintended consequences. Natural genomes are so sloppy that all kinds of stuff can happen.

    The other purpose was to get a look a look at what some of the first primitive organisms might have been like.

  29. #29 Michael
    May 30, 2007

    Great post, PZ. I especially liked this quote:

    Please, please stop quoting the pope. No one should care what the cranky, irrelevant figurehead for an obsolete superstitious dogma says about science–he’s no more a knowledgeable authority on this matter than RuPaul…

    Historically speaking, Popes are nothing but trouble.

  30. #30 raven
    May 30, 2007

    Leon Kass, former chairman of President George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics, thinks SynBio will fail at a more basic level. Scientists, he says, are “inherently incapable of understanding life as lived–not only by human beings, but by any living thing.”

    This has got to be one of the stupidest things I’ve read on the net this week. Reminds me of those old time predictions that airplanes or light bulbs were impossible or IBM’s market analysis that 4-5 computers a year would be enough. No supporting analysis of course, just a bald, vacuous assertion with no proof.

    That he is a bioethicist in Bushes admin. isn’t surprising. Ethics doesn’t seem to be their strong suit, neither does thought.

  31. #31 CalGeorge
    May 30, 2007

    Could they invent an organism that burrows into the Pope’s brain and gives him happy science thoughts and cures him of his god delusion? Pope 2.0?

    No?

    Well, anyways, it would make a great sci-fi movie.

    “My children, Go… Go… God… is…. [grasping his head in his hands], wha….? … My children, go learn science!”

  32. #32 CalGeorge
    May 30, 2007

    Pope 2.0. The movie.

    Little atheist men in a little ship enter the Pope via his ear canal (yuck, ear wax!), navigate to his religious thought section, and start zapping things with their mini-lasers. Soon all that’s left is the good science words.

    Religious words start dropping from the Pope’s vocabulary.

    “Jesus died for our…”
    “… died for our…”

    “Darwin rocks!”

    Papal audience gapes in astonishment.

  33. #33 Tulse
    May 30, 2007

    Why the heck would Greenpeace care about this issue.

    Again, rabbits and cane toads in Australia, kudzu and starlings in the US…

    Sure, there are plenty in the environmental movement who are all woo about “Nature”, and go all druidical. But there are also plenty of thoughtful, rational, scientifically-minded people who realize that the interactions among organisms in the environment is hugely complex, and releasing new, non-native organisms (human created or not) into the wild can have unseen and potentially catastrophic consequences.

    I think that Rucker (in the companion essay that I mentioned above) makes a very good case that we shouldn’t worry too much in the case of synthetic biological organisms, since they will be essentially single-purpose machines, stripped of the other functionality that would allow them to compete in the wild effectively. I think this is more of an issue with adding functionality to existing organisms, especially functionality that increases their fitness (such pesticide- or disease-resistance).

  34. #34 raven
    May 30, 2007

    Creating life is old news. We’ve already done 3 viruses.
    1. Polio was recreated as proof of principle

    2. The 1918 flu virus was recreated to figure out how 50 million people died before it happens again.

    3. The human genome was intelligently designed to be 8% defective wreckage of past retroviruses. Seeing how it is only 5676 years old, must have been made to look like an old junkyard of pathogenic asaults. Someone recently decided to put one of the endogenous viruses back together and see what it does, called phoenix virus.

    The synbio is just a scaleup, several orders more complicated, but humans are smart and determined.

  35. #35 Ribozyme
    May 30, 2007

    Dorid (Comment #19): No, antibiotic resistance does not usually select for stronger pathogens. Since resistance comes from mutations that alter genes that had previously been selected for fitness (e.g. tuberculosis) or aquisition of genes from other organisms, which makes the germs spend resources on usually non essential pathways, it has been found that most antibiotic resistant germs are actually less virulent and active than the non resistant ones. Germs tend to lose resistance genetic modifications once the antibiotic selection pressure disappears. Proper use is the answer, or how can it be explained the ability of modern medicine to cure previously mortal infections? In not so ancient times, most people died rather young and from infectious diseases, not from cancer or cardiovascular problems.

    Approved drugs are, for the most part, not worse than the disease they cause, or they wouldn’t be approved. You are using one of the most popular arguments of the alternative therapies crowd. Sometimes, in the pre-approval trials, some effects are missed (e.g. Talidomide, the COX-2 inhibitors, etc), but once they are discovered, the drugs are banned or used with greater care. Modifying nature has its risks (see how inappropiate agriculture has caused environmental problems and loss of resources), but in science, it is not until after the experiment that you can say whether your hypotesis is disproved or not. We can’t know for sure what the advantages or disadvantages of modifying nature will be until after we have tried.

    Factician (Comment #26): What Jessica Guilford (Comment #18) seems to be focusing on is the use of “wild” organisms or modifications of them to produce useful substances (she speaks of hydrocarbons). That is one of the branches of biotechnology, where wild or modified culturable microorganisms are used that way. In fact, probably useful genes from non culturable microorganisms are being harvested from different environments to modify culturable ones, and thus have a practical use for the unculturable microorganisms’ metabolism.

  36. #36 BC
    May 30, 2007

    I play God every time I take medicine. Too bad other people are blind to their own inconsistency when they complain about “playing God”.

  37. #37 Jon Eccles
    May 30, 2007

    So Venter and Collins were “forced to accept equal credit for completing the human-genome sequence on the White House lawn with Bill Clinton”. Congratulations to them both for seeing out such vital research under those trying circumstances. Did they lend a hand identifying the dress stains?

  38. #38 clucas
    May 30, 2007

    when did i die and wake up in absurdistan

  39. #39 LCaution
    May 30, 2007

    Hmmm, interesting. I just got my Newsweek, and it’s cover story is on pain – a remarkably uninformative article, the sort of thing one might expect from a college freshman who started writing two days before the paper was due – so I followed the link. It’s the cover for the international edition, and I couldn’t find anything in the U.S. edition on the subject.

    LC

  40. #40 clucas
    May 30, 2007

    when did i die and wake up in absurdistan

  41. #41 raven
    May 30, 2007

    The scientific critics of synbio sort of have a point. It always seems harder and takes longer to engineer life forms that are improvements on what nature has already provided. Despite the large effort in agbiotech (“gmos”) about all that has been accomplished has been some single trait additions that are at least proven useful enough to be widely grown.

    What we need more than anything is some sort of renewable fuel crop that doesn’t compete so much with the food supply. IIRC, photosynthesis is only a few % efficient, doubling that could do wonders.

  42. #42 TheBrummell
    May 30, 2007

    A minority that holds strong religious beliefs voices the greatest skepticism.

    My irony meter melted. This is unprecedented – I visit the Pooflinger on a regular basis, where everyone else’s bargain-rate irony meters melt or explode with every post, but mine has held steady, twitching and jittering as I browse the idiocy that is teh intarwebs. But that one quote was all it took to leave me with a stinking puddle of hot plastic and shattered glass.

    dorid, Number 19, said: …medicines whose side effects long term are worse than the disease, antibacterial agents that encourage the growth of stronger bacterial strains by weeding out the weaker, introducing one species to control another and having THAT get out of control.

    Three examples, OK. The first, blatantly wrong. Medicines with side-effects “worse than the disease” are not approved for use, that’s what testing is for. Examples of such “medicines”, passing untested into use, abound through history – blood-letting, anyone? “Long term” presumably means those effects that appear on a longer time scale than typical testing; fair enough, drugs testing does involve time limits – if it didn’t, we’d hear no end of complaints of “they’re sitting on the cure!”. Please name one long-term side-effect that’s worse than short-term death. If the treatment cures the otherwise fatal disease, but you lose the ability to walk 20 years later (an hypothetical example only), is that terrible side-effect worse than the disease? Examples like Thalidomide’s effects on fetuses don’t qualify, because the treatment (give women Thalidomide) was not to prevent death. Polio is frequently fatal – does Polio vaccination (not a cure, a prevention) cause worse long-term side-effects than childhood death, confinement to an iron lung, or crippling?

    Second example: antibacterial resistance. No, not how it works – fitness is not some simple “X is always better than Y” situation – the environment changes, and so do relative fitnesses. If there’s a bacterial strain of say, TB, that is consistently better at REPRODUCING than the more familiar ‘wild-type’, but lacked any bacterial resistance, its fitness would be higher than the resistant strains (and it would become more common) except in those situations involving antibiotics, e.g. certain hospital wards. As was pointed out by Ribozyme, Number 35, antibiotic resistance doesn’t work the way you seem to think. It also doesn’t work that way in pesticide resistance – insects that evolve resistance to Sevin or whatever are not also better at reproducing, dispersing, digesting, avoiding predator, etc., in an environment that does not include Sevin.

    Third example: Yes, species introductions into non-native habitats are bad. Examples abound. Counter-examples, of species introductions that had a net benefit (to humans) are also common – do you imagine that wheat is native to North America? Neutral examples are probably much more abundant than positive and negative combined – species introductions that have no detectable net effect on the local ecosystem, either because the new species occupies a previously completely vacant niche or because the “invader” dies out in short order. That kind of “absence” data are very hard to collect.

    What part of “make a new bacteria to produce polyethylene in a vat” are you confusing with “import rabbits to Australia”?

  43. #43 LCR
    May 30, 2007

    LCaution (#39),

    I wondered about the different editions as well. I can understand customizing some parts to different regions to catch issues of local interest, but the lead articles??? Its almost as if they thought their readership couldn’t handle the international version, or would be insulted or offended by the title.

    I wrote Newsweek and complained. I also asked how I could request an international version rather than my (dumbed down) U.S. version…

  44. #44 Bronze Dog
    May 30, 2007

    As I understand antibiotic resistance: Antibiotics often target some mechanism in the bacteria. Resistant bacteria avoid that by shifting their dependence on that mechanism to another, usually less efficient one.

    Curious thing I read at Orac’s a while back: Apparently if use two antibiotics that cancel each other, resistant bacteria tend to die out faster. Think there’s more testing to be done or something. Need to find and reread it.

  45. #45 Tulse
    May 30, 2007

    What part of “make a new bacteria to produce polyethylene in a vat” are you confusing with “import rabbits to Australia”?

    That’s a pretty flip response, especially considering that, as I understand it, bacteria shuttle genetic material back and forth with each other far more readily than rabbits.

  46. #46 factician
    May 30, 2007

    What part of “make a new bacteria to produce polyethylene in a vat” are you confusing with “import rabbits to Australia”?

    I think they’re pretty similar. That is, if you genetically mutate your rabbits to not have legs. Or hair. Or eyes. And make them taste better to dingos than regular rabbits. Oh, and make the rabbits require dietary supplements. And have the rabbits poop polyethylene.

    Yep, drop those rabbits into Australia, and then it’s just about exactly like making new bacteria that make polyethylene.

  47. #47 Alexandra
    May 30, 2007

    “Synthetic biology is like genetic engineering on steroids,” warns Greenpeace representative Doreen Stabinsky.

    I’m not sure why PZ, or anyone really should or would take Greenpeace to task for that. Even if you extrapolate the whole Greenpeace fear-of-science-abuse position from that statement they are still a lot more fully grounded and reasonable in such concerns than the whole God-will-be-mad-at-you crowd.

  48. #48 Ribozyme
    May 30, 2007

    Excellent comment, Factician!Do you mind if I use your argument when I talk to biotechnolophobes?

  49. #49 Carlie
    May 30, 2007

    Curious thing I read at Orac’s a while back: Apparently if use two antibiotics that cancel each other, resistant bacteria tend to die out faster. Think there’s more testing to be done or something. Need to find and reread it.

    BronzeDog – I don’t remember that from Orac, but was it the basic multi-pronged approach, or something more? Using more than one type of antibiotic with differing mechanisms of action is a good way to stamp out the resistant ones, because it is unlikely that the bacteria resistant to one antibiotic will also be resistant to the other. Hitting them with both together helps prevent the single-resistant from having the time to evolve resistance to the second. Kicking them while they’re down, so to speak. Was it something more complicated than that? Because that would be really cool.

  50. #50 Voice O'Reason
    May 30, 2007

    The Newsweek cover story is on recent efforts to create life in the laboratory, and of course they call this “playing God”.

    No no no. Forming critters from the dust of the ground and blowing into their wee nostrils — THAT’s playing God.

    … a silly poll …: Do you think it is a good idea to let scientists create life in the laboratory?

    In all fairness, if they’re going to ask that, they should also be asking, “Do you think it is a good idea to let parents create life in the bedroom?” Because some of these folks really don’t think through the long-term consequences of their actions…

  51. #51 CCP
    May 30, 2007

    Little atheist men in a little ship enter the Pope via his ear canal (yuck, ear wax!), navigate to his religious thought section, and start zapping things with their mini-lasers.

    Oo! oo! Can it have Raquel Welch in a zippered jumpsuit getting attacked by antibodies that look like springy snake-things that just popped out of a fake can of nuts? OK, maybe not Raquel Welch anymore…maybe Winona Ryder? Where’s that breast-obsessed davescot imitator troll when you need him?

  52. #52 mjfgates
    May 30, 2007

    If you start with the notion that antibiotic resistance involves the organism using some alternate pathway for something that’s less efficient than the “normal” one, but isn’t disrupted by antibiotic X, I could easily see cases where having the traits for resistance to two or more antibiotics would be fatal in itself. Sort of like not having a left eye makes me immune to Left-Pecking Headpeckers, and not having a RIGHT eye makes me immune to Right-Pecking Headpeckers, and being blind makes me unable to look for food.

  53. #53 forsen
    May 30, 2007

    Oo! oo! Can it have Raquel Welch in a zippered jumpsuit getting attacked by antibodies that look like springy snake-things that just popped out of a fake can of nuts? OK, maybe not Raquel Welch anymore…maybe Winona Ryder? Where’s that breast-obsessed davescot imitator troll when you need him?

    Actually, he did make a cameo apperance at 4 AM CST this morning, promoting some new buxom leading lady. Needless to say, his posts didn’t last that long.

  54. #54 Science Avenger
    May 30, 2007

    “Life is not magic,” says Princeton’s Ron Weiss

    Weiss is right: no magic, no vitalism, no ghosts puttering about in the cytoplasm…if there’s anything we can be certain of, it’s that cells are biochemical machines, tiny reaction chambers burbling away and churning through metabolic processes. If Kass and Collins really are clinging to uncertainty about that — and I’m inclined to expect that it’s actually the reporter imputing those ideas to them — then they’d have to be bigger knuckleheads than I imagined.

    You mean like Kasich did the other night. What exactly is this “special trait” humans are supposed to have.

  55. #55 kevin
    May 30, 2007

    “Synthetic biology is like genetic engineering on steroids,” warns Greenpeace representative Doreen Stabinsky.

    Without having seen anything else from Greenpeace in this article, this statement on its own seems pretty, well, reasonable. Seems to my untrained eye that sythetic bio is kind of like genetic engineering but moreso. And so just as we should be careful with genetic engineering, we should be even more careful with synthetic bio. How is that controversial?

    If you have a beef with Greenpeace regarding their stance on GMO, or GMO food products, or animal rights, or whatever… well, this article seems pretty irrelevant to that argument.

  56. #56 factician
    May 30, 2007

    The author isn’t a journalist. He’s a biologist at Princeton.

    http://www.leemsilver.net/challenging/index.htm

    Quite a publication record.

  57. #57 Dorid
    May 30, 2007

    First off, I’m not a biologist, which is why I asked the quetions. I’m here to LEARN.

    As for bacteria, I understand that bacteria doesn’t just mutate and get stronger because of antibiotics. What I’ve read though (on a level I can understand) explained antibiotic resistance as the surviving bacteria expand to fill the emptied niche, or resistant bacteria survive, causing a GENERAL resistance in the population. I am quite willing to admit my understanding is not terribly complex, which is why I asked.

    Now, as for medicines. I’m thinking of a lot of stuff that’s been pulled recently, like Viox. I’m also thinking of some of the earlier meds that caused birth defects in the 50’s. I admit, we seem to be pulling things faster these days, but it doesn’t help those who have been on them, or died from them.

    Lastly, I guess I figure critters are critters no matter what size they are, and something that kills off a friendly bacteria as a “side effect” of killing off a harmful one seems to me to be on the same field as any other invasive species.

    As for being a little tardy: I don’t read the journals, and I don’t keep up on the research except in a general way. Obviously I don’t have the background to keep up on that level. I wasn’t aware we’d made anything NEW yet… I mean, I know we’ve been combining DNA from different species, but I’m not terribly up on that.

  58. #58 dorid
    May 30, 2007

    Apologies, my unedited version went through. Dyslexia sucks.

  59. #59 Randy Owens
    May 30, 2007

    Dorid:

    I’m also thinking of some of the earlier meds that caused birth defects in the 50’s.

    That would be the Thalidomide that TheBrummell mentioned, post #42 (for the moment).

  60. #60 Ribozyme
    May 30, 2007

    And Vioxx belongs to the COX-2 inhibitors I mentioned in Comment #35.

  61. #61 chainsaw mary
    May 30, 2007

    To LCR #43,

    Newsweek have been doing the “lead article shuffle” for some time now – the thing I find most interesting is that while the rest of the world gets articles that are actual news, the US versions are chock full of lead articles on, you guessed it, religion.

  62. #62 sailor
    May 30, 2007

    “God gives life” This has been religious dogma for so long, one wonders if it will have any effect on the religious debate when someone creates life out of non-living organic chemicals. It sounds like they pretty much did it with viruses.

  63. #63 Joshua
    May 30, 2007

    The idea that only God can create life is arguably even more fundamental to Judeo-Christian dogma than the 17th-century notion that Earth was at the center of the universe.

    So when Venter and Church inevitably succeed, does that mean all the religious idiots will finally give up their useless imaginary friend?

  64. #64 Keanus
    May 30, 2007

    I’m sure that when Church succeeds, the DI will claim his success proves ID. Intelligent design was required to create life! Voila.

  65. #65 Monado
    May 30, 2007

    When we save lives, aren’t we playing God? Yet I’ve not heard anyone saying we should let a baby with a heart defect die–as long as we can save them without a blood transfusion, if they’re born to Jehovah’s Witnesses.

    Here’s what Mark Twain says about playing God (yes, I’m still on a Mark Twain spree):

    If science exterminates a disease which has been working for God, it is God that gets the credit, and all the pulpits break into grateful advertising-raptures and call attention to how good he is! Yes, he has done it. Perhaps he has waited a thousand years before doing it. That is nothing; the pulpit says he was thinking about it all the time.

    When exasperated men rise up and sweep away an age-long tyranny and set a nation free, the first thing the delighted pulpit does is to advertise it as God’s work, and invite the people to get down on their knees and pour out their thanks to him for it. And the pulpit says with admiring emotion, “Let tyrants understand that the Eye that never sleeps is upon them; and let them remember that the Lord our God will not always be patient, but will loose the whirlwinds of his wrath upon them in his appointed day.”

    They forget to mention that he is the slowest mover in the universe; that his Eye that never sleeps, might as well, since it takes it a century to see what any other eye would see in a week; that in all history there is not an instance where he thought of a noble deed first, but always thought of it just a little after somebody else had thought of it and done it. He arrives then, and annexes the dividend.

    I noticed that delayed response in some of the stories of the Old Testament: King so-and-so offended God, lived a long and happy life, died in power, and God’s punishment was visited upon his son, the next king.

  66. #66 Scott Hatfield
    May 31, 2007

    I’m miffed that the article didn’t say anything about Jack Szostak’s work, since that bears on abiogenesis scenarios, but other than that I think this article is overdue. Since 2004 I’ve been telling anyone who will listen that Venter and a handful of others are serious about creating life, that it’s not as far out as people would think, and that I wouldn’t bet against them.

    Mayhap I shall now get some street cred!

  67. #67 Kseniya
    May 31, 2007

    I think that Rucker makes a very good case that we shouldn’t worry too much in the case of synthetic biological organisms, since they will be essentially single-purpose machines, stripped of the other functionality that would allow them to compete in the wild effectively. (Tulse #33)

    Interesting. And yet the phrase “Life will find a way” springs, inexorably, to mind. 🙂

  68. #68 Caledonian
    May 31, 2007

    Interesting. And yet the phrase “Life will find a way” springs, inexorably, to mind. 🙂

    You’re quoting the movie version of a rock-star “chaotician” that’s what an author imagines cutting-edge mathematicians are like – and the author in question thinks global warming is a scare-mongering hoax perpetrated by ecological terrorists.

    Think for a moment about the quality of your inspiration sources.

  69. #69 Casey
    May 31, 2007

    While I am fully supportive of this research. The thought that it can cure so much suffering and help us to create more sustainable fuels and protect the environment is reason enough to pursue. Like with any new technology or drug, caution definitely does need to be taken to ensure that the safeguards against synbio proliferation keep up with the advancements of the desired technology. It is likely that the first synbio organisms will be simply designed to accomplish simple tasks and then ‘die’. It is reasonable to assume that over time there will be pressures for more advanced applications, including reproducing organisms, organisms that can proliferate in the wild at large scales and can persist for long periods.

  70. #70 josh
    May 31, 2007

    “It’s physics and chemistry. Get the recipe right, and that’s all that matters.”

    Chemistry is physics. Everything is physics. Except Timecop.

  71. #71 Kseniya
    May 31, 2007

    Hi Caledonian,

    Re: your comment #68. “You’re quoting the movie version of a rock-star ‘chaotician’…”

    Whoa. I didn’t realize Darius Rucker was a chaotician!

    I’m not quite sure what you’re trying to tell me. I’m not quoting Rucker, I’m quoting someone who cited and paraphrased Rucker. My point is that Rucker is probably wrong, because nature (or should I say life) has demonstrated, time and again, that it is capable of going down some rather surprising and unexpected paths. The “life will find a way” phrase is a reference to a few things I read here on Pharyngula not too long ago which addressed this capability. One had to do with mismatched chromosome pairs, I think, and the other with spontaneous gender shifting in amphibians.

    (However, I’m disregarding the “Life will find a way” entry about eating still-squirming cephalopod tentacles.) 🙂

  72. #72 mark
    May 31, 2007

    I think this weekend I will design and create some life. I plan to hang a used Evinrude on the end of a plastic garbage bag; then I’ll put some more machines inside the bag–a can opener, maybe a fax machine, and a hand pump. I wonder if I should deliver it to Mike Behe or to Ken Ham.

  73. #73 DH
    May 31, 2007

    In general, I don’t see how creating life in a lab (or not being able to do so) says one thing about God one way or another.

    On the other hand, it comes down to one of those questions of “just because we CAN do it, does it mean that we SHOULD do it?” Scientists (myself included) tend to vote Yes on that, because we like to push the limits.

    But, something like this does leave room for concern. We’ve already messed up numerous ecosystems by habitat fragmentation, pollution, hunting, and whatnot. That is, we’ve been extracting parts of the ecological web of interactions that maintain much of the planet that we live in.

    Should we now try to input new forms of life (whether on purpose or by accident) into a complex system that we know so little about? The lucky thing (for us) is that, although our actions, even the best-intentioned ones, have had bad effect, they have not completely screwed up all ecosystem services everywhere. It seems that ecological networks, then, are somewhat robust against even heavy manipulation.

    But, that being the case (and, the caveat is that not all webs are all that robust), is it really wise to create forms of life that COULD, in theory, be invasive in some manner.

    It might be Life 2.0. But a lot of ecologists will also worry that it (or some future version of “it”) will become InvasiveSpecies 2.0 as well.

  74. #74 DH
    May 31, 2007

    Oh, and a comment to Casey (post #69)

    “It is likely that the first synbio organisms will be simply designed to accomplish simple tasks and then ‘die’. It is reasonable to assume that over time there will be pressures for more advanced applications, including reproducing organisms, organisms that can proliferate in the wild at large scales and can persist for long periods.”

    In a Jurassic Parkish “Life will find a way” sort of thing, I’d be worried that our friend, natural selection (etc.) might send Life 2.0 on end-run around us, despite our best intention.

    Maybe Life 2.0 won’t be anything bad, but Life 2.1 could cause problems.

    Just my thoughts.

    In any case, if technology gets to that point (and it’s virtually there already) someone will do this. Perhaps it’s time to toughen up legislation against introducing invasive species or dangerous pathogens into the “wild”. That way, researchers will be free to experiment, but will know that there will be tough consequences for irresponsibility.

  75. #75 Arnosium Upinarum
    May 31, 2007

    dorid says:

    “As for being a little tardy: I don’t read the journals, and I don’t keep up on the research except in a general way. Obviously I don’t have the background to keep up on that level. I wasn’t aware we’d made anything NEW yet… I mean, I know we’ve been combining DNA from different species, but I’m not terribly up on that.”

    You completely misunderstand. I wasn’t referring to your tardiness in keeping up with the journals, a circumstance of which I have no information whatsoever. (Its interesting to hear your reaction, though).

    What I was referring to is the fact that people have been bringing “new forms of life” into the world for thousands of years through selective breeding. Your expression of concern over the introduction of critters that would likely not have naturally evolved is “tardy” by thousands of years.

    Most biologists would have caught on to that. Perhaps, as the biologist you claim you are, you ought to divide your time reading the literature you say you don’t read as well as visiting blog sites.

  76. #76 Xenesis
    May 31, 2007

    ”-“Playing God” is where you do absolutely nothing, take credit for other entities’ work, and don’t even exist — scientists don’t aspire to such a useless status. -”

    Mmm, typical phrase of atheist, but the atheistic being means to be scientist. 😕

  77. #77 Kseniya
    May 31, 2007

    DH: I’d be more concerned about “natural consequnces” if I were them.

    Arnie: Dorid’s not a biologist, and doesn’t claim to be.

    Caledonian: Ok, thanks to DH, I now see what you were getting at. Jurassic Park. Nope. I wasn’t quoting from, alluding to, or even thinking about Jurassic Park.

  78. #78 Chinchillazilla
    May 31, 2007

    I go to school for biotech and a lot of people, including some high school friends have asked me why do I want to “play god.” Disgusting.

    You should tell them it’s because you think you’d be better at it than God.

    That’s why I’ve looked into it. Because, dammit, I want to be able to photosynthesize! Why can’t I?

  79. #79 Maronan
    May 31, 2007

    Please, please stop quoting the pope. No one should care what the cranky, irrelevant figurehead for an obsolete superstitious dogma says about science–he’s no more a knowledgeable authority on this matter than RuPaul, and it doesn’t matter which of them has the more fabulous wardrobe. Seriously, he’s nothing but a sour old man yelling at those damn kids to get off his lawn.

    Well, to some extent, the Pope is relevant; he’s the CEO of the Catholic Church, inc., and he has a lot of (undeserved) authority. As such, he’s relevant to the extent to which he can block research. He’s not actually relevant to the research itself, but he’s relevant to the logistics of getting it funded, perhaps.

    Of course, SynBio scientists haven’t quite proven that a cell is a kind of biochemical machine, and religious biologists like Kass and Collins hang on tightly to this uncertainty. Proof will come when the first discrete, self-maintaining, self-replicating, stable organic creature–Life 2.0–is created from scratch in the lab.

    Is it just me, or are Kass and Collins (at least according to the article) creating a Catch-22? “You shouldn’t work on SynBio unless you can “prove” the cell is a biochemical machine by completing SynBio.

  80. #80 Patrick Quigley
    May 31, 2007

    Pope Benedict XVI has expressed outrage at scientists who “modify the very grammar of life as planned and willed by God.” The pope elaborated in an address in 2006: “To take God’s place, without being God, is insane arrogance, a risky and dangerous venture.”

    He really sounds worried that this effort will succeed. When I was younger our inability to create life was held up as evidence for God’s existence. I guess that the Pope no longer believes that “only God can make a tree.”

  81. #81 Randy Owens
    June 1, 2007

    DH:

    In a Jurassic Parkish “Life will find a way” sort of thing, I’d be worried that our friend, natural selection (etc.) might send Life 2.0 on end-run around us, despite our best intention.

    But keep in mind, natural selection needs variation and/or mutation to work on. If these critters will be tailor-made, there won’t be variation, of course. But (I’m going out on a limb a bit here) mutation would probably be reduced, too, even assuming they don’t tweak the polymerase to improve replication fidelity or something like that. After all, with a heavily reduced genome, there isn’t going to be the redundancy of genes that you find in nature, so any mutation will be that much more likely to be fatal. Particularly if they’re haploid instead of diploid, and I can’t imagine any reason they’d want to complicate things by making a diploid.
    It doesn’t render it impossible, but it seems a likely extra protection from Life 2.1.

  82. #82 anon
    June 1, 2007

    “Playing God” is where you do absolutely nothing, take credit for other entities’ work, and don’t even exist

    Ah. God is a masters/phd/postdoc supervisor….

  83. #83 DH
    June 1, 2007

    To Randy in post #81:

    “But keep in mind, natural selection needs variation and/or mutation to work on. If these critters will be tailor-made, there won’t be variation, of course.”

    I can see your point on working to reduce the chance of mutations or the survival of mutations. But, even viruses, with very, very reduced genomes evolve over time. Some of the mechanisms we know. I’d be willing to bet that there are quite a few that we don’t, so can’t protect against either.

    That brings me to another point. Not only are the complexities of life interacting with life still not worked out to a level that I’d be comfortable with introducing new life; but neither are the interactions of genes with other genes.

    So, even if, as you say “mutation will be that much more likely to be fatal” in a creature with a steam lined genome, I’d be hard pressed to say that it would be impossible.

    Hence, I go back to one of my other points. It will be next to impossible to legislate against this type of thing happening when the technology to do so becomes totally feasible. But, it is possible to legislate against irresponsibility, so that those who decide to work in this field know that there will be rigorous review of their actions, and harsh penalties if their actions have unforeseen negative consequences.

    I hate always quoting movies here, but, with great power comes great responsibility. The technology has given certain scientists some great power. They, then, have to decide whether to use that power with wisdom and face the consequences if they don’t; or forgo the use of that power if they don’t trust their wisdom to keep things under control.

  84. #84 Keith Douglas
    June 1, 2007

    The sad thing is that we should think about new technologies, but alas most of the thought-time in the public sphere is given to reactionaries and so on …

  85. #85 Kseniya
    June 1, 2007

    DH: Good thoughts, but it’s likely that those who lack the wisdom to use their power wisely will also lack the wisdom to know it.

    (And what an ugly sentence that was!)

    (And if you’re uncomfortable quoting a movies, instead say that you’re quoting a comic book, which in this case will be true. No worries!)

  86. #86 Bilbo
    June 3, 2007

    If biologists succeed in designing living organisms, they also will have succeeded in advancing an inductive argument for Intelligent Design:

    1) No non-intelligent processes from non-living to living organisms on Earth are known.

    2) All researched non-intelligent processes to living organisms have, so far, proven exceedingly improbable and implausible.

    3) All known processes from non-living to living organisms are intelligently designed (biologists designing living organisms).

    4) Therefore, by inductive reasoning, it is probable that the process to the original living organisms on Earth was intelligently designed.

    And as biologists become more and more adept at designing living organisms, and we continue to fail to find a non-intelligent way for organisms to appear, this inductive argument will become more and more powerful.

  87. #87 Lee Silver
    June 5, 2007

    I’ve read (sometimes with amusement), the comments posted in response to PZ Myer’s post on my article in Newsweek International on Synthetic Biology. I think it is useful for all scientists to understand some fundamental aspects of mass media publishing by American media companies.

    (1) The international editions of Newsweek (and the international CNNi version of CNN, and other American-based media) are aimed at an audience of traveling and ex-pat Americans who – on average – are much better educated and intellectually curious than typical stay-at-home Americans. My particular article is pitched at much too high a level for publication in the U.S. edition (sad commentary, isn’t it).

    (2) Standard Newsweek articles (not including editorials or op-eds) are supposed to appear “fair and balanced” on the surface. They are also HEAVILY edited — material is deleted, sentences are rearranged, descriptive adjectives are removed. The editors choose the title and subtitles. The articles also need to be lively with lots of vivid images and metaphors — otherwise, forget about being published. And if it doesn’t sound like a breathtaking new breakthrough — forget about being published. And if you make a fuss about how your prose has been mangled — forget about being published.

    (3) Authors are not allowed to express their views explicitly in their own voice, but views can be slipped in through quotes and subtext — Collins and Kass, who hold a belief in Judeo-Christian “dogma,” are in a “minority.” Their quotes show how ignorant or out of touch they are with current advances in biotechnology. The Pope and Greenpeace were purposely paired up to make people see that their fears and anger emanate from a common belief in a transcendent entity (God or a post-Christian Mother Nature) who they think should rightly rule the earth and its creatures. And in the final quote that ended the article, Jim Watson says – in the subtext – that there is no such thing as God. It should be obvious to fellow rationalists that the author has reached the same conclusion.

    (3) The views of the current Pope DO matter, no matter how ridiculous they are, just as the views of Stalin mattered when he was alive and in charge of the USSR. When the Catholic Church tells American Catholics to not vote for a particular Congressional candidate in a close race, the potential implications are quite serious.

    Cheers

  88. #88 Doug
    September 5, 2007

    #64 – You’re right.

    If SymBio fails, fundies will probably claim a lack of supernatural vitalism. But if SymBio succeeds, fundies will say it proves an intelligent agent is required. Either way, it will be evidence for the supernatural.

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