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Designing Life: Playing God or Advancing Society?

Since the days of Frankenstein, scientists have wrestled with the possibility of creating life. It appears that now the time has come. Microbiologist J. Craig Venter recently discussed the computer-designed synthetic bacteria that he and his team of scientists created using man-made DNA. Understandably, his creation has received mixed reviews. Is this a milestone that could further the human race, or is it a dangerous, ego-driven experiment orchestrated by a man playing God?  Let’s take a look at the man behind the white lab coat.

Who is J. Craig Venter?

Venter is possibly one of the most famous scientists in recent history, known for his groundbreaking work in deciphering the human genetic code. His latest accomplishment involves the first synthetic species ever made. Right now, it is nothing more than a few small dark specks of bacteria in a Petri dish. However, these man-made microscopic life forms were about 15 years in the making and cost about $40 million over that period time.

Though few in the scientific community would argue that this is a huge landmark, when it comes to practicality Venter’s creation isn’t very useful. His new bacteria was formulated on a computer and made in the laboratory, but its genetic code comes from a synthetic chromosome made at the hands of man, not nature. It is alive and can self-replicate, which means it can grow and make copies of itself.

The purpose of the creation.

Venter admits that he didn’t design the bacteria to do anything in particular. The whole purpose was to see if a new life form could be created using synthetic DNA. Venter believes this is just the beginning of a biological revolution where bacteria and other organisms can be custom-designed to produce new foods, medicines, and green energy.

These lofty goals may not be too far in the future. In the next three years some of these concepts may come to fruition. Venter states that next year’s flu vaccine could possibly be a result of synthetic DNA. If that’s the case, the time to create new vaccines every year will drop from months to hours. As a matter of fact, Venter has already signed a contract with a major pharmaceutical firm to see if it can be done. BP and Exxon Mobil are also invested in his projects.

What the critics say.

His harshest critics accuse him of trying to short-circuit millions of years of evolution and bring about a second Genesis. They feel his actions are hubristic at best and dangerously irresponsible at worst. President Obama showed his concern when he asked his bioethics commission to hold hearings on this new technology.

In addition to regulatory and legal concerns, there are moral and ethical issues as well. Obviously, many Americans don’t think you should mess with Mother Nature. But Venter claims that as a society we may not have much choice as our population grows and our environment is threatened.

Venter denies playing God, stating the true secret of life is creating its DNA software.  If that is true, then perhaps - for good or bad - life on this planet as we know it may never be the same.

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