Synthetic Biology: Playing God for the First Time?

Craig Venter’s team have succeeded in producing a synthetic bacterium capable of self-replication. The group synthesised from scratch a variant of the Mycoplasma mycoides genome, which they then transplanted into a different Mycoplasma species to produce a bacterium controlled by the synthetic genome. The resulting bacterium could be regarded as the first truly synthetic organism. Earlier forms of genetic engineering have involved modifying the genome of an existing organism; Venter’s group have produced an organism whose genome was instead pieced together from chemical building blocks.  

Julian Savulescu and Tom Douglas have offered a variety of media responses for television and radio, and their quotes have been included in written publications (see full list below).

Media highlights

Newshour: Creating artificial life
BBC World Service, 20 May 2010, 21:14 
[interview with Julian Savulescu: 8.39-12:49 on iPlayer clock]

Ethics concern over synthetic cell
BBC online news: 20 May 2010 22:46 UK
includes interview comments by Julian Savulescu:

Scientists Create Synthetic Life In Lab
Sky News Online, Katie Cassidy: 11:57pm UK, 20 May 2010
[interview with Tom Douglas at 1:30 on Sky News player clock] 

Synthetic life breakthrough brings new concerns
The World Today, Simon Lauder : 21 May 2010 12:10:00
[Julian Savulescu commentary at clock counter 1:43] 

Synthetic cell sparks debate among James Martin School scholars
James Martin 21st Century School: News & Research Highlights: 21 May 2010 

Podcast:  Julian Savulescu discussing Craig Venter's synthetic bacterium
Interview with Nigel Warburton on Virtual Philosopher: 21 May 2010

Radio programme: "To the Point", KCRW radio
Syndicated US current affairs programme, hosted by Warren Olney: 25 May 2010 
Other panelists included David Biello, an editor with Scientific American magazine; Clyde Hutchison, a microbiologist with the Craig Venter Institute, David Baltimore, president emeritus of Cal Tech University and a Nobel Prize winner in physiology or biology; and John Moreno, a professor of ethics at the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Bioethics.
[audio file available by podcast from their website after the programme airs]

See full list of media appearances/quotes below.

Other resources:

Visit Sciencexpress website for more information on Venter's paper "Creation of a Bacterial Cell Controlled by a Chemically Synthesized Genome".

Commenting on the paper, Julian Savulescu writes "Venter is creaking open the most profound door in humanity’s history, potentially peeking into its destiny. He is not merely copying life artificially as Wilmut did or modifying it radically by genetic engineering. He is going towards the role of a god: creating artificial life that could never have existed naturally. Creating life from the ground up using basic building blocks. At the moment it is basic bacteria just capable of replicating. This is a step towards something much more controversial: creation of living beings with capacities and natures that could never have naturally evolved. The potential is in the far future, but real and significant: dealing with pollution, new energy sources, new forms of communication. But the risks are also unparalleled. We need new standards of safety evaluation for this kind of radical research and protections from military or terrorist misuse and abuse. These could be used in the future to make the most powerful bioweapons imaginable. The challenge is to eat the apple without choking on the worm."

Longer comment by Tom Douglas and Julian Savulescu available here.

View powerpoint presentation 'Synthetic Biology and the Dual-Use Dilemma' by Tom Douglas and Julian Savulescu (2009)

For further comments on this and other ethical issues, visit our blog.


Full list of TV, radio and print media appearances:

 

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