May 21, 2010

‘synthetic cell’, 'sell-out of science' or just another story to sell?

The controversial commercialising geneticist Craig Venter [I’d back Francis Collins any day, in a music contest or a genome-sequencing one] has, over the last ~10 years, funded (partly) a multi-million project researching the insertion of synthetically created DNA into bacterial cells from the proceeds of his genome sequencing company. It’s been revealed, to global media frenzy, that after a long process, they’ve achieved what they intended – making a massive strand of DNA and sticking it in a bacterium. It’s slightly more impressive than it sounds. And less impressive than many have made out. A living cell is a complex beast including various interacting 3D structures (including, but not limited to proteins) that we haven't fully characterised yet. The '2D' DNA sequence that codes for this is a little bit easier to create.

Journalists who understand science? Nah, jokes, just a pipe-dream.

Who knows what people will say /are saying this nice little experiment into the limits of human intelligent-design has proved. I can guess that materialists will be happy and take heart in their little wars against God, (though if they’re really sceptical and daring, perhaps they’d take off their rose-tinted glasses once in a while to take a good look at the real world – it’s better than anything they’ve offered. Perhaps I'm attacking a straw man, but is every single thing 'Science' does really a success for atheism?) I’ll be interested to see where the future research into the minimal genetic requirements for a living cell takes Venter’s team. The potential for the production of chemical compounds (including vaccines/drugs) is also interesting. There will be large financial incentives for research in this area I expect, so I hope that doesn’t distort the aims of the project too much, though I also don’t see how it’s much different from similar existent projects in genetic engineering of bacteria. As with GE, caution must be taken with these “new” organisms (the genome of this creature was in fact largely copied; as has been suggested here, it’s arguably a major case of plagiarism (God might be filing suit soon)) and potential differences between synthetic and ‘natural’ DNA (such as (lack of) post-translational modification [e.g. methylation of bases] and any differences/damage in the associated translating machinery) will have to be kept in mind. The processes of deoxyribonucleic acid synthesis used are not perfect, as the fairly high failure rate in this project will demonstrate; so while it’s all pretty cool in a way, let’s not all be overconfident about this step forward in molecular/cell biology.

Interviewed on Campbell Live on the potential ethical consequences of this decision was Prof. Gareth Jones, a structural biologist and ethicist at Otago (incidentally, he’s a self-confessed Christian, so probably ridiculously biased and generally anti-science). It’s worth a listen perhaps.

No comments:

Post a Comment