News: ” Scientists in the US have succeeded in developing the first synthetic living cell.”

The big, very big news from Science (both the journal and the enterprise) is that a large genome has been synthesized in the lab, using a computer. First a DNA was synthesized, and then it was transplanted into a host cell.

I am reminded of a very similar achievement more than 180 years who:  Friedrich Wöhler synthesized the organic compound urea from the inorganic ammonium cyanate in 1828: That was a major achievement which brought down one of the walls separating the living from the non-living. That created some controversies too.

Like every major scientific breakthrough, the achievement is applauded, the significance is debated, and the potential consequences are feared.

Now it will be proclaimed that finally humans (Craig Venter and his team) have created life which, until now only God (or Nature) could do.

Many scientists are convinced that this will lead to a number of extremely positive and valuable developments in energy production, pollution reduction, disease-remedies, and more, while others will fear this will facilitate the synthesis of lethal life forms over which even cautious researchers may have little control, and which may fall in the hands of anti-social and anti-civilization psychopaths who are ceaselessly scheming with the already available tools in basements and caves in various parts of the world.

So it has been with the onset of many major inventions and discoveries: from steam locomotives and vaccines to nuclear energy and pesticides: jubilation and fear, benefits and dangers, all real and imaginary. Some will call for a ban on such research, but it is doubtful that this can be imposed or will work, if imposed. International bodies may put some restrictions. But, for good or otherwise, never has a new path in science been successfully halted in its continuation.

May 21, 2010


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