The creation of synthetic life….

By Brian Edgar

Some recent headlines (of May 20) have declared that ‘life has been artificially created’ but the J. Craig Venter Institute says, a little more precisely, that they have succeeded in creating the first living organism – a bacterium – with a completely synthetic genome.  Perhaps that is not as dramatic as saying ‘we have created life’, but it is a bit more accurate and it is, nonetheless, a great scientific achievement.

Every living creature has its own sequence of DNA which is the blueprint for what the organism is. A sequence of DNA designed on a computer has been created from the four chemical bases adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C), and thymine (T) which make up DNA and this has been placed into a donor cell which grew and replicated itself. So now the world has a new bacteria which previously did not exist.

So what?

Well, in the short term new bacteria could be designed to do the things that bacteria do. Bacteria are already used to cleanup many types of water and soil pollution. The right bacteria could, for instance, help clean up the huge oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Bacteria are also used to treat municipal waste water before it is released back into the environment. They are also used to breakdown soil pollutants. It might be possible to use new bacteria to create bio-fuels. And there might be medical uses as well. Bacteria not only cause infection, some sorts are good at helping in the healing of wounds. And in the same way that we now artificially synthesize insulin (instead of retrieving it from the bodies of dead people) bacteria could perhaps synthesis other products.

Of course, there are risks in this as well. A new bacteria might have properties that we don’t know about and might cause either environmental or health problems. So there are questions of being able to work out safely what would be involved in good health outcomes for people and safe and productive commercial practices. This will be complicated by questions about the commercialization of life, and the patenting and ownership of life forms. None of this will be easy.

But on top of this, the greater significance is that it is another step along the way of people being able to re-form and re-structure life forms and in the long term it will have much greater significance. In short, we are in the process of re-creating, or at least re-forming life.

And so there are important theological questions tied up in this. Should we be ‘creating life’ in this way? Well, first of all, this is not ‘creation’ in the way that God creates. It is the re-formation of already existing matter. So we have not taken over God’s job. But it does involve a design which is novel, and a form of life that is new.

Does this mean ‘playing God’? Well there is a sense in which we are called to ‘play God’, that is, to represent God in the world. As God’s stewards we are to use our intelligence and our wisdom to care for the world, and this means intervening in what is going on. It is not so much a case of whether we will affect the world but how we will do that. Will we do it wisely and carefully?

But should this stewardship involve creating new forms of life?   Again, there is a sense in which we already do this. Creating a bacteria is not as significant as creating a new, unique human being, but that is what we do all the time. God has enabled us to produce new people – we are, to use the technical term, pro-creators. We procreate. Which means we, in a sense, stand in for God and make the decision about a new life.

But, of course, we don’t control the form that this new life takes. Except that we have started to do that with genetic engineering, and, in various places, sex-selection and selection against embryos with genetic disorders.

In all of this we have to use our intelligence, wisdom and our creative abilities. Now some people will resist the idea of creating new forms of life, as usurping God’s position. But others will think that being in the image of God mean that we are to be creative, just like God is creative. I think that is not unreasonable, although it is a profoundly important issue – one filled with all sorts of potential – good and bad.

In any case, I think – no, I am sure – that it is inevitable that we will move on to create other forms of life, and will modify and change exiting forms of life – including the form of the human person (again, something we are already doing with chemical and medical technology). So in that situation the question is how we bring Christian wisdom and Christian values to bear on the situation.

Questions that need to be resolved include discerning more clearly the nature and significance of ‘species’ and whether/to what extent there are boundaries that should not be crossed; and the appropriate rate of any change that is seen as helpful.

We need great wisdom as we embark on this stage of life and development.

If you want to read more on this topic click on the Biotheology link where there are a number of related articles.

This blog was the basis of a conversation with Sheridon Voysey on Open House, broadcast nationally on May 23, 2010  on Sydney Hope 103.2, Melbourne Light FM 89.9, Canberra 1Way FM 91.9, Wollongong NineFourONe 94.1, Adelaide Life FM 107.9, Hobart Ultra 106five, Riverland / Mallee, SA 100.7 and the Vision Radio Network.

This entry was posted in Genes and the Future. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.