Today’s article in HeadlineBistro
Word last week that a new, “synthetic cell” has been made by Dr. J. Craig Venter, of Human Genome Project fame, has electrified many in the scientific world. The announcement has led to confusion about what has actually been accomplished, opened the door to possibilities both revolutionary and frightening, as well as rekindling debate over the ethics of manipulation.
What Venter and his colleagues actually did was to synthetically produce the entire chromosome of Mycoplasma mycoides, a type of bacterium lacking a cell wall, and transplant it into its cousin, Mycoplasma capricolum. Though the two are cousins, the M. capricolum began to produce proteins of M. mycoides, whose instructions for being built are carried only in the M. mycoides genome. Read about the back-story more fully here.
Critics of Venter rightly point out that he has not made a truly synthetic cell, as he has ‘merely’ transplanted the genome of one species of bacterium into the preexisting cell of another species. From any perspective, semantics notwithstanding, this is a revolutionary advance in the field of molecular biology. It really matters not that Venter used another species to produce the instructions on the newly introduced chromosome.
We have long been able to introduce foreign genes into unrelated cells for production of novel proteins. This process of Cell Transformation was first discovered by Frederick Griffith in 1927, and shown by Alfred Hershey and Martha Chase, in a Nobel Prize-winning experiment, to be brought about by novel DNA.
The key to getting the activation and expression of foreign genes is to attach to them regulatory DNA sequences recognized by the cell as belonging to one of the cell’s own genes; in effect “tricking” the cell to make something other than what it thinks it’s making. This is how we have been making human insulin in microbes for decades. We simply attach the human insulin gene to a regulatory region of DNA meant for a microbial gene, and trick the cell into producing human insulin.
What Venter has done is bring this process to a level that is orders of magnitude more involved. Under such a paradigm, he doesn’t need to craft an entirely new cell, but that is coming. The possibilities for the future are so large as to be barely capable of being articulated.
Of course, the optimists are attaching to this the possibility of realizing their fondest hopes and dreams. Count me among them. We may well be able to design organisms capable of producing pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, biofuels, fertilizer compounds, or even be able to consume crude oil as their only carbon and energy source. The latter would be a next generation improvement from the current microbes in use, and would be especially helpful in oil spills such as the unfolding disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
The sky is literally the limit, as we most certainly will design ever-increasingly useful synthetic cells. We have been on this road since Griffith’s discovery of Cell Transformation. It is inevitable. Improvements in biotechnology will accelerate the pace at which these developments will be made.
However, there are some serious concerns over what designer DNA inside of designer cells could do if these organisms were to escape into the wild.
Griffith’s experiment showed that components (now known to be DNA) of heat killed pathogenic Streptococcal bacteria were taken up by non-pathogenic Streptococcal bacteria, transforming these hitherto tame cells into pathogenic strains.
What if some designer DNA was to make it into cells in the wild (called wild-type to distinguish them from their experimentally created cousins)? What if the DNA from the synthetic cells transformed these wild-type cells? Depending on the new capacities, this could cause an ecological disaster. Are we prepared for controlling this new capacity and the possible catastrophic consequences of its misuse, intentional or otherwise?
In the movie, Inherit the Wind, based on the Scopes Monkey Trial over teaching evolution, Spencer Tracy portrays Clarence Darrow and makes this argument to the jury about the price of progress:
Gentlemen, progress has never been a bargain. You have to pay for it. Sometimes I think there’s a man who sits behind a counter and says, ‘Alright, you can have a telephone, but you lose privacy and the charm of distance.’
‘Madam, you may vote, but at a price. You lose the right to retreat behind the powder-puff or your petticoat.’
‘Mr., you may conquer the air, but the birds will lose their wonder and the clouds will smell of gasoline.’
Darwin took us forward to a hilltop from where we could look back and see the way from which we came, but for this insight, and for this knowledge, we must abandon our faith in the pleasant poetry of Genesis.
Similarly, Molecular Biology has taken us to a hilltop from where we could look back on the natural order of the biological world down to its molecular level of order and control. But for this insight, and for the revolutionary advances that will be made, we must be prepared to abandon our comfort in certain knowledge of the natural order, and prepare for a new order of uncertain stability in the biosphere.
This new order will mean new levels of vigilance, of regulation and oversight.
In a sense, we’ve worked out many of these concerns already. Many of the same concerns were raised more than thirty years ago in the creation of transformed cells, which also use antibiotic resistance genes to help select the creation of successful clones by growing in a culture medium laced with antibiotics. These transformed cells were created with a few essential genes that were crippled, so the cell could not grow outside of the lab, where these defects could be artificially remedied with nutritional supplements.
Still, as Andrew Haines, President of the Center for Morality in Public Life accurately points out, “Synthetic cells aren’t bad; they also aren’t new life. But we must proceed with caution nonetheless; since increases in scientific precision often give rise to the opinion that man ought to regulate the conditions of his own being. And this is patently false.”
Similarly, Catholic News Service reports:
Archbishop Rino Fisichella, the head of the Pontifical Academy for Life, told Italian television May 21 that as long as synthetic cells were used “toward the good, to treat pathologies, we can only be positive.” However, if they are used in ways that offend human dignity, “then our judgment would change. We look at science with great interest. But we think above all about the meaning that must be given to life. We can only reach the conclusion that we need God, the origin of life.”
That’s going to be a tough but necessary sell with Molecular Biologists. It is a comparably small price to pay for our ability to do so much potential good.