Monday, June 04, 2007

Synthetic Biology II

There is some seriously next-level science going on in the world. Lee Silver at Newsweek has a fascinating article on where scientists are taking the quest to create build-your-own biological organisms, designed to do everything from growing hard-to-produce medicines, to acting as internal cancer-killing machines that live in your bloodstream and seek-and-destroy any and all tumors. Scientists envision synthetic biological critters which create plastic, wool or silk as a by-product, and "biodevices" that detect radiation, anthrax and other dangers. One of the goals with the most world-changing potential is a living organism that secretes fuel, "a self-sustaining, highly efficient biological organism that converts sunlight directly into clean biofuel, with minimal environmental impact and zero net release of greenhouse gases."

The kicker to all these lofty goals is that the biggest of them can be best accomplished if scientists come up with a way to manufacture life from scratch, rather than tinkering with the life that's already hanging around the planet. There's progress happening without that leap, but there's a lot of extra coding that gets in the way. There's also progress that's happening in the putting-the-building-blocks-together department. Scientists have done some amazing things:

They've forged chemicals into synthetic DNA, the DNA into genes, genes into genomes, and built the molecular machinery of completely new organisms in the lab—organisms that are nothing like anything nature has produced.

All of this, however, does not add the spark that makes something alive. They can mess like crazy with what's already there, but they haven't crossed the boundary into "creating life," although, that is certainly their aim. I will be really interested to see whether God allows scientists to put life into something where there was no life before. Sceptical, but interested. (It's still wouldn't be real creation. At a basic level, the matter of the universe was already created, regardless of what we do with it afterward.) According to Silver, scientists are on the brink, and they certainly are performing monumental feats with the newly acquired knowledge of genes and DNA and the like that has transformed science over the last half century. Will God grant them the ability to step beyond tinkering and into the realm of kick-starting life? I have no idea, and so I'm not as sanguine about all their grand schemes coming to fruition as some of the scientists who are working on synthetic biology seem to be, but even without that truly unique element, what they are already doing is astounding, even to the point of being scary.

There is so much good that could be done, but also an enormous amount of room for abuse, not the least of which is the potential for critters that have been tampered with running amuck in the world, doing things they weren't intended to do by the humans who are taking it upon themselves to redesign nature. Whether created by God and reconfigured by man, or entirely lab grown by human design (if God allows that barrier to be crossed), these human designers need to tread carefully. The idea of taking some newfangled critters, adding sunlight, and fueling the world is totally captivating, as is the notion of eliminating cancer, and the Newsweek article really is fascinating, but my alarm bells go off when I start reading about people whose attitude is that of James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA structure, who, as quoted by Silver, said, "If we don't play God, who will?" I'd be more comfortable if the people who are on this quest were a little more afraid of the outcome.

Hat tip: Instapundit