“That brave new world we’ve read about is here,” said the New York Daily News in an editorial. Last week, a team of scientists led by Craig Venter, the maverick geneticist, unveiled Synthia, the “first-ever man-made microorganism.” Unlike every other creature since the dawn of time, Synthia has no parents. Her DNA was designed on a computer and manufactured by Venter’s team from a few dollars’ worth of basic chemicals. The DNA was then implanted into a host cell, which started to replicate independently as a true new species. This isn’t quite Frankenstein, but the age of artificial life has formally dawned, said the Los Angeles Times. The ethical debates to follow will make those over stem cells “look tame.” The power not only to create life, but to design it, holds enormous potential for both good and evil, and “raises difficult questions about the expanding boundaries of science and the nature of life.”
Oh, relax, said Raymond Tallis in the London Times. We hear these “predictable and boring howls” of foreboding any time science does anything that supposedly “goes against nature.” What people forget is that if scientists hadn’t taken it upon themselves to “play God” over the years, we’d spend very brief lives hungry, cold, naked, sick, and helpless. But they did, and thanks to Craig Venter’s breakthrough, the future looks brighter still, with researchers already imagining microbes that could manufacture crude oil or new drugs, or make water drinkable. Down the road, scientists could even design new crops or farm animals. Besides, said Denis Boyles in National Review Online, “it’s not like Venter built himself a new cell from nothing.” As long as we’re still forced to borrow living cells from nature, the Frankenstein line has not been crossed.
The line has been blurred, though, said The Economist, and the fears of those troubled by Venter’s breakthrough are “not misplaced.” It’s only a matter of time now “before life-forms are routinely designed on a laptop”—a disquieting prospect even to those of us who support this research. Microbes tailor-made to feed the world are a possible outcome, but a “teenage hacker, a terrorist, or a rogue state” might design a new virus or bacterium more lethal than anything found in nature. But there’s no going back now. “Knowledge cannot be unlearned,” and the ability to design and create life is no longer “the prerogative of the gods.”