Researchers led by controversial scientist Craig Venter last week reported that they had produced the first artificial life-form.
Some have heralded this as the beginning of a world in which synthetic organisms will soon be producing all the food and fuel that humanity should need. Others denounced it as scientists “playing God”, and warned that such artificial organisms might be used in warfare.
So, should socialists be celebrating this as a key moment in science or be deeply afraid of the consequences?
Certainly Venter’s claim that “our cell has been totally derived from four bottles of chemicals” is a bold one. He is referring to the fact that the main distinguishing feature of DNA, the “molecule of life”, is that it can be viewed as a string of letters of which there are four different types—A, C, G and T.
The discovery of this central attribute of DNA in 1953 was revolutionary. For the first time it showed that the instructions for life could be viewed as a kind of code, such as that used by computer programmers.
A typical fragment of this code—GATTACA—might sound like gibberish, but to a cell it provides the information required to link amino acids together in the correct order to create specific proteins.
Proteins have enormously varied functions—for instance, collagen gives our bones their strength while haemoglobin carries oxygen in our blood.
Yet all are coded by DNA sequences that are just variations on the same four letter code.
An organism’s complete DNA sequence is known as a genome.
For Venter, a bacterial genome, or even that of you and me, is just a piece of software code. To prove his point, he and his team generated a bacterial genome by purely synthetic processes.
They then introduced this into a bacterium whose own genome had been removed.
The resulting combination could survive and propagate just like normal bacteria. This is certainly an amazing achievement.
It convincingly demonstrates, in contrast to the religious idea that living organisms are animated by a “vital force”, that life really is just a matter of chemistry.
What about the practical implications of the work?
Venter says he is now working on ways to use the technology to create new types of vaccines or turn carbon dioxide into bio-fuels. Others are concerned that this approach could generate new and deadly bio-weapons.
Personally I am sceptical that either goal will be brought much closer in the immediate future by the new technology.
It is still far cheaper to engineer existing bacteria than design them from scratch.
Using this approach scientists have already created fuel producing micro-organisms—but it still remains to be shown whether these can compete economically with current energy sources.
As for biological weapons, while there are already some highly deadly bacteria around—such as anthrax—the means of using these on any large scale remains thankfully limited.
Of course, it is always unwise to underestimate the potential of any new scientific technology. By stripping the bacterial genome down to its bare essentials, Venter believes that it will be possible to engineer life in a far more radical fashion than with current approaches.
If he is right, it is likely that his vision will come at a price.
Venter’s aggressive advocacy of the patenting of genes and organisms is rightly criticised by those who believe these should be the common property of humanity.
In addition, socialists might ask—given the amazing scientific tools already available to us, why capitalism seems incapable of using such tools to solve basic human issues such as world hunger. It does nothing serious to prevent the coming catastrophe of global warming.
In fact only a properly planned and truly democratic society can deliver on such basic human issues, not new technologies alone.