Dec 17 2007

Creating Artificial Life

“Life, life….I have created life!!!” – Dr. Frederik Frankenstein

We are on the brink of one of those watershed developments in science that changes the rules of the game, opens up new possibilities that at first we can only scarcely imagine, and has the potential for being truly transformational. We are rapidly developing the ability to make artificial life from scratch (well, more or less). More specifically I am talking about the ability to synthesize a completely artificial DNA.

Noted geneticist J. Craig Venter has already created an artificial chromosome – a long strand of DNA that exists as a discrete unit. He has also created living cells by inserting a naturally occurring chromosome into a cell whose own DNA was removed. All that remains to be done now is to insert an artificial chromosome into a cell to see if it survives and reproduces, making a viable cell line. And, voila – artificial life.

Of course, life is more than DNA. Eukaryotic cells also contain mitochondria, organelles that serve as the energy factories for the cells and that have their own DNA. There are other so-called epigenetic factors in cells also. Eventually we will likely be able to make every aspect of the cell itself, but for now it is easier to just take an existing cell and swap out the nuclear DNA programming for artificial DNA.

We already have the ability to genetically engineer cells – we can take bacteria, for example, and insert a gene to manufacture a specific protein. This new process, however, takes genetic engineering much further, creating the entire DNA strand.

From a basic science perspective this is an exciting avenue of research. There is no better way to understand how something works than to try to build it from scratch. We may hit some unforseen hurdles, but these will likely just teach us something new about how DNA works. If it does work that is also a great proof of principle – that our model of how DNA works is accurate.

From a practical point of view the sky is the limit. Venter is already talking about building a basic DNA platform, that accomplishes all the basics of creating a living cell line, and then plugging in genes for specific functions. For example, he has his eyes on engineering cells that can make ethanol, hydrogen, or other fuels. Engineered cells could also make medicines or any desired protein.

And this is only the beginning. Like any technology, once the basics are worked out innovation will allow for endless possibilities. Eventually we will be able to create plant and animal life, or a form of life so new that it defies existing classification. What this technology does is change the very nature of evolution. Biological evolution is constrained by history and can only act upon the products of random mutations and recombination. But artificial life is not constrained and we can engineer whatever changes we desire. Artificial life can therefore evolve millions of times faster than biological life.

And with any such technology a host of ethical questions are raised. Can someone own a life form? Can you patent a DNA sequence? What rights would such life have? Should we limit the intelligence of artificially created life? What would be the ethics involved in creating a completely artificial yet self-aware intelligent species? These ethical dilemmas are still a bit in the future, but embarking on this technological pathway means we should start thinking about them now.

It seems likely that Venter will succeed in creating an artificial cell line by the end of 2008, in which case that is likely to be the biggest news story of that year. This will definitely be one science story to follow.

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