Pharyngula

Albert Mohler might be freaking out at some of the new biotechnologies, but he missed a big one, one that might give him nightmares: synthetic biology. This week’s Nature has a very fine editorial on a subject that’s probably going to be more troubling to the religious than evolution, in a few years. We’re on the verge of being able to create life in the laboratory.*

Synthetic biology provides a welcome antidote to chronic vitalism.
Many a technology has at some time or another been deemed an affront to God, but perhaps none invites the accusation as directly as synthetic biology. Only a deity predisposed to cut-and-paste would suffer any serious challenge from genetic engineering as it has been practised in the past. But the efforts to design living organisms from scratch ?; either with a wholly artificial genome made by DNA synthesis technology or, more ambitiously, by using non-natural, bespoke molecular machinery ?; really might seem to justify the suggestion, made recently by the ETC Group, an environmental pressure group based in Ottawa, Canada, that “for the first time, God has competition”.

That accusation was levelled at scientists from the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland, based on the suspicion that they had synthesized an organism with an artificial genome in the laboratory. The suspicion was unfounded, but this feat will surely be achieved in the next few years, judging from the advances reported earlier this month at the Kavli Futures Symposium in Ilulissat, Greenland, on the convergence of synthetic biology and nanotechnology, and the progress towards artificial cells.

What’s particularly refreshing about the article is that it downplays the creation of life in the lab—it’s going to be an impressive technical achievement, but it will not be a “momentous step.” There is no wide chasm between chemistry and life, and crossing that threshold shouldn’t (and won’t, I expect, unless the politicking is particularly effective) be a Nobel-winning accomplishment, nor is it going to surprise anyone. In the next generation, it’s going to be taken for granted as just part of biochemistry, just like no organic chemists are shaken up by the routine synthesis of urea anymore.

It ought to shake up the social consciousness, though: another bastion of vitalism will have fallen. It ought to shift a few attitudes about some common issues, too.

Synthetic biology’s view of life as a molecular process lacking moral thresholds at the level of the cell is a powerful one. And it can and perhaps should be invoked to challenge characterizations of life that are sometimes used to defend religious dogma about the embryo. If this view undermines the notion that a ‘divine spark’ abruptly gives value to a fertilized egg ?; recognizing as it does that the formation of a new being is gradual, contingent and precarious ?; then the role of the term ‘life’ in that debate might acquire the ambiguity that it has always warranted.

Biology is just going to get more and more fun.

*First person to recite that pathetic “get your own dirt” joke is going to be rewarded with disemvowelment.

Comments

  1. #1 lauram
    June 29, 2007

    gods and goddesses don’t create life in the first place. only mothers do that.

  2. #2 Oran_Taran
    June 29, 2007

    Can I finally get my own pet dragon?

  3. #3 grld
    June 29, 2007

    Disemvowelment? r y fr rl?

  4. #4 Chet
    June 29, 2007

    Man. At this point, I would imagine biologists would be insulted to be accused of playing God – when it’s obvious, at this point, “God” is trying to play biologist.

    Of course, unlike God, biologists actually exist.

  5. #5 Ken Cope
    June 29, 2007

    As for the dirt on getting your own dirt, that’s why biologists keep astronomers around. We are formed from embers fused in the death throes of stars.

    We are stardust.

  6. #6 phat
    June 29, 2007

    It may not be a momentous event in that it is inevitable. It’s hard, though, for those that don’t undertand the processes in detail to see it as not momentous.

    Is it any more important than launching a human being into orbit and bringing them back alive? I don’t think so. But launching a human into space and bringing them back is still exciting, despite the relatively simple scientific problems involved. It’s a puzzle to be solved. Some are harder than others. Some are perceived by those who don’t work to solve those puzzles as being incredibly difficult.

    Synthetic life is exciting, if only because it will likely change minds.

    phat

  7. #7 phat
    June 29, 2007

    I’ll add something here. CS Lewis was afraid of space travel, as were quite a few Christians in the 30s. Anything that makes them nervous, even if it shouldn’t make them nervous, is a good thing and important.

    phat

  8. #8 Kimpatsu
    June 29, 2007

    “Disemvowelment”? You mean they’ll only be able to write consonants?!

  9. #9 Christian Burnham
    June 29, 2007

    Creating life in the laboratory?

    How unsanitary. Get a hotel room and do it like normal people.

  10. #10 Christian Burnham
    June 29, 2007

    Actually, I’ve always harbored a secret desire to be disemvoweled by the godless one, so here goes nothing:
    ——————————————————
    One day a group of scientists got together and decided that man had
    come a long way and no longer needed God. So they picked one
    scientist to go and tell Him that they were done with Him.

    The scientist walked up to God and said, “God, we’ve decided that we
    no longer need you. We’re to the point that we can clone people and
    do many miraculous things, so why don’t you just go on and get lost.”

    God listened very patiently and kindly to the man and after the
    scientist was done talking, God said, “Very well, how about this,
    let’s say we have a man making contest.” To which the scientist
    replied, “OK, great!”

    But God added, “Now, we’re going to do this just like I did back in
    the old days with Adam.”

    The scientist said, “Sure, no problem” and bent down and grabbed
    himself a handful of dirt.

    God just looked at him and said, “No, no, no. You go get your own
    dirt!”
    ———————————————————
    Oh… it was everything I thought it would be and more!

  11. #11 autumn
    June 29, 2007

    I expect that we’ll see the same excuses that even now are presented: “The molecules you started with are/were/have been/could concievably have been associated with living matter or its byproducts, and so retain some majik, sorry, Life-Force, that you have not created”.
    The previous quote, or one akin to it, I have seen as an explaination of why the synthesis of organic molecules is not, in fact, the synthesis of organic molecules. Unless each atom comes with a pedigree tracing it to the dawn of time (six-thousand years? That makes it easier) and establishing that at no point was said atom involved in any living process, the kooks have an out.
    Ask one of them to describe a situation in which the creation of life in a lab would be on a par with the initial creation of life (remember that they claim a designer) and be prepared to be wowed by illogic and contradiction.

  12. #12 skeptic8
    June 29, 2007

    How about a preemptive strike?
    A faux-Gospel site hawking the “dangers” of abiogenetic synthesis before the IDiots discover the cash potential. To look “right” it will have to raise money so ethically donate those $ to AIDS research (etc). An engineered “exposure” and “crash” might be interesting too.

  13. #13 phat
    June 29, 2007

    One of the problems that occurs to me, after actually thinking about this for a very short period of time, does bother me.

    I suppose this is the “big question”.

    How do we approach this in an ethical manner?

    I would guess that quite a few people here have already rolled their eyes at that question. I did it as I wrote the question.

    But I think this points us to an area that should be discussed.

    I’m not capable of pointing out the arguments here in this little blog reply. But I think it would be fruitful for us to consider just how problematic religious definitions of ethics have had on what scientists are asked to do and what outcomes their knowledge inspires.

    Oppenheimer recognized this problem and certainly tried to rectify it. He may not have used religious terms to discuss this, but I think he understood that politics and religion couldn’t be easily seperated. Being able to create life in a laboratory does inspire questions about value as much as creating an atom bomb.

    I’m convinced that the overwhelmingly popular attachment made between religious ideas and morals (or ethics, either way) has a negative effect on these decisions.

    I suspect if we could strip all religious definitions of morality from our discourse these questions would be much more easily answered.

    phat

  14. #14 Bobby
    June 29, 2007

    I saw a talk by Steen Rasmussen at the IEEE Symposium Series on Computational Intelligence in April, and it looked to me like his group is about 2/3 of the way there. That is, they’ve already worked out the necessary reactions and their thermodynamics, for about 2/3 of their system.

    They aren’t trying to imitate LAWKI. Instead, their “protocell” will attach some molecules to the outside of a cell wall and use them for both metabolism and genetics.

    He said they could have done this 10 years ago if they had had funding. They finally got an offer from the EU, then several US agencies piled on some money when they found out the team was going to relocate to Europe. IIRC, several other nations are now contributing as well.

    As for creationists, they’ll simply proclaim that it’s not “really” life. (It certainly won’t be a Scotsman!)

  15. #15 llewelly
    June 29, 2007

    *First person to recite that pathetic “get your own dirt” joke is going to be rewarded with disemvowelment.

    In the biotech age, it has mutated into ‘get your own nucleobases’ .

  16. #16 Maronan
    June 29, 2007

    Crt lf frm nn-lf? H! Gt yr wn mtrls nd drt frst! Y’r stll nt s gd s Gd!

    (Pre-disemvowled for your convenience.)

  17. #17 Maronan
    June 29, 2007

    Oops, shoulda put a smily “:)” in that above post…

  18. #18 wzy(hy! Tht's nt my nm!)
    June 29, 2007

    Drn, wntd t b th frst t mk tht jk. h wll, gss t ws prtty bvs.

    nd, yh. Tht “gt yr wn drt” rlly s dmb jk!

    S nstd, ‘m gng t tll nthr dmb jk, bt n tht s nthng t d wth scnc r crtnsm:

    Rbb brmwtz nd Fthr McKnz wr tlkng.
    “S, Rbb brmwtz,” sd Fth McKnz, “D y mn t tll m tht y’v nvr tstd hm sndwch?”
    “Wll, ys,” dmttd Rbb brmwtz, “nc whn ws fr frm hm, gt crs nd hd hm sndwch.”
    “Tstd gd, ddn’t t?” skd Fthr McKnz.
    “Ys,” dmtted Rbb brmwtz. “hv t sy t tstd prtt gd. t ws gd snd.”
    “Bt tll m,” sd Rbb McKnz, “D y mn t tll m that y’v nvr slpt wth wmn?”
    “Wll, ys” dmttd Fthr McKnz “whn ws stdnt t th smnry, dvlpd rprt wth yng ldy. n nght whn w wr ln w gv wy t tmpttn nd…”
    “Bt th hll t f hm sndwch! Ddn’t t?” sd Rbb brmwtz.

    H-H H H H H H H H! Tht ws fnny wsn’t t?

  19. #19 Christian Burnham
    June 29, 2007

    Maronan…

    Carrot leaf forum nine-loaf? He! Gate yore won materials node dart frost! You’re stall ant as good so Good!

    Hmmm, disemvoweling is evidently not a uniquely reversible process.

  20. #20 ooy (o I a ei ioia)
    June 29, 2007

    f y cn rd ths, y cn gt gd jb s lgl scrtry r stngrphr.

    ====
    u i ou a ea i, ou ae oeey iae!!

  21. #21 rp
    June 29, 2007

    Obviously, disconsonanting is a much worse punishment than disemvowelling.

  22. #22 Christian Burnham
    June 29, 2007

    ooy: If you can read this, you are hopelessly insane?

  23. #23 windy
    June 29, 2007

    God just looked at him and said, “No, no, no. You go get your own dirt!”

    Adam looked at God and said “Go get your own rib!”

  24. #24 synthesist
    June 29, 2007

    While we are meddling with nature ….

    JCVI Scientists Publish First Bacterial Genome Transplantation Changing One Species to Another
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/science/leadingedge.shtml

    link to the JVCI press release
    http://www.jcvi.org/press/news/news_2007_06_28.php

    Off-topic, but related to the Fossils / LUCY post, The BBC had an interesting science prog “in our time” about the PERMIAN-TRIASSIC boundary

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/history/inourtime/inourtime_20070628.shtml

  25. #25 David Marjanovi?
    June 29, 2007

    Why, BTW, hasn’t there been a blog post about the big paper of last week’s Nature, the one with the great big eutherian phylogeny as evidence that no Cretaceous placentals (in the strict sense) are known and none may have existed? After all, we did get a post on the latest molecular date estimates on this matter. 🙂 Please? Pretty please? 🙂

  26. #26 David Marjanovi?
    June 29, 2007

    Why, BTW, hasn’t there been a blog post about the big paper of last week’s Nature, the one with the great big eutherian phylogeny as evidence that no Cretaceous placentals (in the strict sense) are known and none may have existed? After all, we did get a post on the latest molecular date estimates on this matter. 🙂 Please? Pretty please? 🙂

  27. #27 sailor
    June 29, 2007

    Didn’t scientists already produce two viruses from chemicals (not alive) bought over the internet?
    This seems like halway there.

  28. #28 Torbjrn Larsson, OM
    June 29, 2007

    But I think this points us to an area that should be discussed.

    Well, if I haven’t rolled my eyes before, I would at this point. The local press cites Venter as (after translation back and forth):

    ‘We stopped our work in the 90’s and set up an ethical advisory board with representation from all major religions. Also, a comprehensive public discussion took place. No other scientific field had so many ethical discussions before results were even realized.’

    disemvoweling is evidently not a uniquely reversible process.

    Neither is disemboweling. Hmm.

    Que creationists: “Typical materialist mutational process, destroying information. They admit to it!”.

  29. #29 Torbjrn Larsson, OM
    June 29, 2007

    But I think this points us to an area that should be discussed.

    Well, if I haven’t rolled my eyes before, I would at this point. The local press cites Venter as (after translation back and forth):

    ‘We stopped our work in the 90’s and set up an ethical advisory board with representation from all major religions. Also, a comprehensive public discussion took place. No other scientific field had so many ethical discussions before results were even realized.’

    disemvoweling is evidently not a uniquely reversible process.

    Neither is disemboweling. Hmm.

    Que creationists: “Typical materialist mutational process, destroying information. They admit to it!”.

  30. #30 steve
    June 29, 2007

    If we don’t play God, who will?
    –James Watson

  31. #31 forsen
    June 29, 2007

    That article was delightfully free of (*sigh*) framing.

  32. #32 mojojojo
    June 29, 2007

    How interesting! I was just reading this morning about the team at the J. Craig Venter Institute who have converted one species of bacterium into another by swapping its DNA.

    Makes me wonder what results you would get if you took the vowel set from one post and swapped them into another?

  33. #33 Blake Stacey, OM
    June 29, 2007

    mojojojo:

    Makes me wonder what results you would get if you took the vowel set from one post and swapped them into another?

    That is, after all, how “Yahweh” became “Jehovah”.

  34. #34 Bob L
    June 29, 2007

    Create life? Oh um. When they can give men Davey Jones style facial tentacles, then science will have one upped God!

  35. #35 mark
    June 29, 2007

    I thought all this was already documented by Edgar Rice Burroughs in The Monster Men (1929):
    “What a marvellous thing is creation,” exclaimed Virginia…How insignificant is man’s greatest achievement beside the least of Nature’s works.” “and yet,” replied von Horn, “man shall find Nature’s secret some day. What a glorious accomplishment for him who first succeeds. Can you imagine a more glorious consummation of a man’s life work–your father’s, for example?”

  36. #36 Kagehi
    June 29, 2007

    Actually, my first thought wasn’t that they would deny that it was life, they would just continue ignoring stuff in the Holy Babble that contradict the idea that humans are the only thing with so called souls, then invent, “special vitalism”, to go along with, “special creation”.

  37. #37 woozy(now, THAT's my name)
    June 29, 2007

    Obviously, disconsonanting is a much worse punishment than disemvowelling

    Please. It’s called being inconsonant.

    ooy: If you can read this, you are hopelessly insane?

    Very close! I had intended “If you can read this, you are completely insane”. Otherwise you are right on the money!

    When I was ten years old, a Mad magazine had drawing where one of the background details was a subway sign that said
    “f y cn rd ths y cn gt a gd jb, bt frst y shld g t th y dctr” (or something like that). I was pretty impressed. A few years later I sent my smart-ass uncle a postcard where I saved space by leaving out all the vowels. He really enjoyed it and bragged who easily he made sense of it. Then I sent him a postcard where I saved space by leaving out all the consonants. *that* he said, he couldn’t make anything out of.

  38. #38 PhysioProf
    June 29, 2007

    “We’re on the verge of being able to create life in the laboratory.”

    If by this you mean, “Create a living organism using nothing other than chemicals ordered from Sigma and non-biological chemical reactions”, I’m not so sure about this.

    In order to make a first cell, you need the chromosomal DNA–that’s the easy part–and then you need a lipid cell membrane–that should be pretty easy–and you need to make charged tRNA–still not too hard–and you need to make ribosomes–hmm, getting harder–and you need to make all sorts of enzymes and regulatory proteins and membrane proteins–hmm.

    Now, if you are willing to allow using biological expression systems to create all of the nucleic acids and proteins required to assemble the cell, maybe we are on the verge.

  39. #39 Erin
    June 29, 2007

    This is, probably not coincidentally, the topic of State of the Nation’s “Science Friday” today.

  40. #40 Jim Lemire
    June 29, 2007

    I asked the following question over at my own blog, but no one reads that, so I thought I’d try here:

    how is what the Venter team did different from cloning? I would have thought that transferring one bacterial genome into another species would be somewhat trivial given what we are capable of doing already. Why is this so ground-breaking?

  41. #41 JohnnieCanuck, FCD
    June 29, 2007

    It probably isn’t so ground-breaking unless you get hung up on the ‘turning one species into another’ aspect. Uninformed chatterers like those found in the main stream media could correlate this with turning a cat into a dog, perhaps.

  42. #42 Skeptic8
    June 29, 2007

    CREOST “taxonomy” is limited to “kinds” with some hoof & cud definitions. This rather fluid paradigm has given us “microevolution” and “macroevolution” to dance with when one is a presidential candidate. Then there is an “adaptive” Lysenkoist route that denies the Malthusian constraints of Natural Selection (++) in order to maintain a “benevolent deity”. We have the genre of Benny Hinn “prophet/ healers” who dispense “divine healing” of diseases which this deity must have created in the first instance. Genetic “disabilities” must then be remedied by “divine power” if these remedies work at all. If the genetic propensity to “sin” wasn’t present in “Adam” but was a consequence of the “fall” which “doomed” us all to “sin” and condemnation who designed it? Can these Prophet/ Healers do a competent job?
    I’ll settle for a competence trial. That is called “proof”.

  43. #43 Calladus
    June 29, 2007

    God just looked at him and said, “No, no, no. You go get your own dirt!”

    I had some Christian commenter give me that joke in my blog and then pat himself on the back for being a wit. (He was half-right).

    My response was to just tack on a bit to the joke.

    And then the scientist said, “Fine, if you want to play that way, I’ll just trigger a quantum event to open another zero-sum bubble universe. Let there be light!”

    And God said, “Wait, what?”

    (Using one of the “Many Worlds” theories of cosmology.)

    My commenter was not happy with my response.

  44. #44 Norman Doering
    June 29, 2007

    PhysioProf wrote:

    “We’re on the verge of being able to create life in the laboratory.”

    If by this you mean, “Create a living organism using nothing other than chemicals ordered from Sigma and non-biological chemical reactions”, I’m not so sure about this.

    Well, obviously it wasn’t big news when they did pretty much that creating the first synthetic virus.

    Or when they did it again.

  45. #45 JP
    June 29, 2007

    f y cn rd ths, y cn gt gd jb s lgl scrtry r stngrphr.

    If you can read this, you can get a good job as a legal secretary or stenographer.

    Yes, I am that bored. Nothing like being home sick on a Friday night.

  46. #46 JP
    June 29, 2007

    As a side note, Hebrew does not include vowels, and people are capable of reading it easily. The key difference is the structure of Semitic languages, which revolve around word roots made of only consonants. For example, the root k-t-b is ‘writing’, and vowels and additional consonants give exact meaning.

    Anyone familiar with Frank Herbert’s novel The White Plague? It concerns a molecular biologist who, driven insane by the loss of his family, creates a disease that kills women. A fairly prescient novel, written in 1982.

  47. #47 Calladus
    June 30, 2007

    The White Plague is one of my favorites. I’ve re-read it several times.

  48. #48 wzy(k, htsht. Rd ths thn!)
    June 30, 2007

    If you can read this, you can get a good job as a legal secretary or stenographer.

    Yes, I am that bored. Nothing like being home sick on a Friday night.

    Okay, Now try this:

    Rbb brmwtz nd Fthr McKnz wr tlkng.
    “S, Rbb brmwtz,” sd Fth McKnz, “D y mn t tll m tht y’v nvr tstd hm sndwch?”
    “Wll, ys,” dmttd Rbb brmwtz, “nc whn ws fr frm hm, gt crs nd hd hm sndwch.”
    “Tstd gd, ddn’t t?” skd Fthr McKnz.
    “Ys,” dmtted Rbb brmwtz. “hv t sy t tstd prtt gd. t ws gd snd.”
    “Bt tll m,” sd Rbb McKnz, “D y mn t tll m that y’v nvr slpt wth wmn?”
    “Wll, ys” dmttd Fthr McKnz “whn ws stdnt t th smnry, dvlpd rprt wth yng ldy. n nght whn w wr ln w gv wy t tmpttn nd…”
    “Bt th hll t f hm sndwch! Ddn’t t?” sd Rbb brmwtz.

  49. #49 wzy(k, htsht. Rd ths thn!)
    June 30, 2007

    If you can read this, you can get a good job as a legal secretary or stenographer.

    Yes, I am that bored. Nothing like being home sick on a Friday night.

    Okay, Now try this:

    Rbb brmwtz nd Fthr McKnz wr tlkng.
    “S, Rbb brmwtz,” sd Fth McKnz, “D y mn t tll m tht y’v nvr tstd hm sndwch?”
    “Wll, ys,” dmttd Rbb brmwtz, “nc whn ws fr frm hm, gt crs nd hd hm sndwch.”
    “Tstd gd, ddn’t t?” skd Fthr McKnz.
    “Ys,” dmtted Rbb brmwtz. “hv t sy t tstd prtt gd. t ws gd snd.”
    “Bt tll m,” sd Rbb McKnz, “D y mn t tll m that y’v nvr slpt wth wmn?”
    “Wll, ys” dmttd Fthr McKnz “whn ws stdnt t th smnry, dvlpd rprt wth yng ldy. n nght whn w wr ln w gv wy t tmpttn nd…”
    “Bt th hll t f hm sndwch! Ddn’t t?” sd Rbb brmwtz.

  50. #50 PhysioProf
    June 30, 2007

    “Well, obviously it wasn’t big news when they did pretty much that creating the first synthetic virus.”

    We’re not talking about creating viruses; we’re talking about creating cells. Viruses are not “alive” in the sense that matters here; only cells are.

  51. #51 Keith Douglas
    June 30, 2007

    Ken Cope: And here I have the Cosmos theme on by coincidence …

    You know, I’m glad people do this stuff, but I am not sure it will have the effect on the stubborn some think it will. I used to think that the discovery of extra-solar planets would shake people up. But that happened in 1995 or something and it was just so ho-hum to a lot of folks. 🙁

  52. #52 Norman Doering
    June 30, 2007

    PhysioProf wrote:

    We’re not talking about creating viruses; we’re talking about creating cells. Viruses are not “alive” in the sense that matters here; only cells are.

    I would disagree about virii being “alive,” but that doesn’t matter because you don’t think that’s a big deal — and you won’t think it’s a big deal when J. Craig Venter transplants the genome of bacteria either. And then it won’t be a big deal when the next step happens and by the time we reach that goal there will be so many of these “no big deal” little steps that the last step won’t seem like a big deal either.

  53. #53 Nix
    June 30, 2007

    Oh, _The White Plague_ has *nothing* on Egan’s _The Moral Virologist_ for scariness. Nothing. (Killing women? No, it’s much nastier than that.)

  54. #54 PhysioProf
    June 30, 2007

    “And then it won’t be a big deal when the next step happens and by the time we reach that goal there will be so many of these ‘no big deal’ little steps that the last step won’t seem like a big deal either.”

    All I’m saying is that either synthesizing a virus or getting a bacterial cell to be able to replicate when its chromosome has been replaced with that of a closely related species still leaves us *many* steps away from synthesizing de novo a functional, replication-competent cell solely from purified non-cellular components.

    As far as this current advance being “no big deal”, if you are taking the normative position that we should be “very, very afraid” of the possibility of reaching that final outcome, I have no opinion one way or the other on that. I am just saying that as a descriptive matter, we are still far away, and this current advance does not take us much closer. Thus, if one were inclined to be afraid of the prospect of synthesizing a functional, replication-competent cell, this current advance should not substantially increase your level of fear.

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