The world's first man-made life form: Be afraid?

"Synthetic life" has arrived. It could open the door to much-needed medical advancements...or give terrorists a deadly new weapon

What do these advances mean for science?
(Image credit: Corbis)

In what's being heralded as one of the most monumental scientific accomplishments in decades, researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute have created an organism with man-made DNA. The "synthetic" bacterium is a result of injecting artificial genetic material into the empty body of a cell. In theory, artificial organisms offer solutions for many serious health and environmental problems, from cancer to oil spills. But critics worry that "playing God" could also have apocalyptic consequences. Is "synthetic life" worth the risk? (Watch an ATN News report about "synthetic life")

Beware of this creature: Constructing synthetic life "has unimaginable potential risks," says Oxford ethics professor Julian Savulescu in the BBC. By "engineering organisms that could never naturally exist," we expose ourselves to possible catastrophes — from bio-weapon terrorism to environmental disasters — so destructive they could wipe out life as we know it.

"'Artificial life breakthrough announced by scientists"

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Reward outweighs the risk: The worries about synthetic life are entirely "misguided," says Ken MacLeod in the Guardian. Our "biosphere comes up with natural resistance to entirely new organisms every day." And while the threat of bio-terrorism "may be significant," it's "not in principle greater than those posed by natural organisms" that already exist. Besides, the potential is so "great," it trumps whatever theoretical concerns anyone may have.

"Humanity will thank heaven that this creator of synthetic life is playing God"

The scientists need to be accountable: Our newfound ability to create life "to our specifications" has "almost unimaginable promise," says David Ropeik in the Huffington Post. But "far less of that promise will be realized if the people doing this work" simply treat it as race for fame and fortune, and "fail to recognize and address [the public's concerns] about what they are doing."

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