..."Scientists are one step closer to constructing a living, synthetic organism that has the potential for social, economic, and ecological disruption - and society is not at all prepared for that."
As Tony Soprano once warned: "Once you join this family, there is no going back." Such will be the case with so-called artificial life. A movie is artificial life. You can turn it on and then off. Once the DNA is out of the bottle, it is not going back. Mankind has not been very adept at exotic species. Rabbits in Australia, gypsy moths in America, and the European introduction of various diseases to the Americas caused tremendous havoc and suffering. They were not artificial life as much as unfamiliar life. Aids is thought to be an exotic cross species invasion.
The term artificial life is half right and half wrong. It is life, created by humans and untempered and untried by time. When that life is introduced, it may be an opening to many wonderful things, but it may be the source of some exotic red tide that can go inter-continental and change the very nature of life as we know it. Once it joins our family, there is no going back.
Artificial life being created
By Roger Highfield, Science Editor Telegraph
Last Updated: 7:01pm GMT 24/01/2008
Experiments to create the first man-made organism have started in the wake of the successful creation of the genetic code of a living thing from laboratory chemicals.
The first artificial genetic code - the software of life - and how to make it from scratch from four kinds of chemical is unveiled today by an American team, marking the completion of the second of three steps towards the dawn of synthetic life.
Sequence of images of the synthetic genome created by Craig Venter's team
Efforts to finish the final step of transplanting the synthetic DNA into a cell are under way, though it takes some weeks to work out if a transplant has been successful.
A team of 17 researchers at the J Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland, describes in the journal Science how it has successfully created the largest man-made DNA structure, indeed the largest synthetic molecule, the circular genetic code of an artificial bacterium that it is now trying to breed in the lab.
The scientists led by the human genome pioneer Dr Craig Venter want to create new kinds of bacterium, living chemical factories if you like, to make new types of bugs which can be used as green fuels to replace oil and coal, digest toxic waste or absorb carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.
The feat will trigger excitement and unease in equal measure along with widespread debate about the ethics of creating new species, which Dr Venter believes will be a major step in the history of our species. One critic of what some call Synthia put it more trenchantly: "God has competition."
Rumours have circulated for weeks that they have achieved the feat but, speaking from Davos, Switzerland, Dr Venter tells The Daily Telegraph: "No we have not. There are a number of serious constraints on that happening and we are working diligently to get rid of them.
If we had succeeded it would be part of this paper. As soon as we have it, I doubt that we would be able to keep it a secret. Nor would we want to."
But he believes success is only "a matter of time."
The genetic codes - genomes - of all organisms are written in the chemical language of DNA and Dr Venter's team used lab methods to make all 582,970 letters of a slightly modified version of the genome of a genital bacterium, Mycoplasma genitalium JCVI-1.0.
The name underlines how Dr Venter wants to rewrite the software of life so it can still run on the hardware of an existing bacterial cell.
Standard methods can only make tiny DNA snippets. Today's technical tour de force, the fruits of an effort launched at the start of 2003, has created a huge ring of DNA that is more than 10 times bigger than earlier attempts, a milestone towards the goal of creating a fully-synthetic organism that is able to self replicate.
To achieve today's "very exciting" milestone, his team made DNA fragments in the lab into larger pieces using new methods for the assembly and reproduction of the DNA segments. After several years of work perfecting chemical assembly, the team found they could harness the process that cells use to repair damage to their chromosomes to complete the job.
The team, which now includes Dan Gibson, Clyde Hutchison and the Nobel laureate Ham Smith, has already started its attempt to create a living cell based entirely on the synthetic DNA code as part of an effort to find out which of its genes are essential for life, crucial for efforts to understand how life works.
"This extraordinary accomplishment is a technological marvel," said Dr Venter, paying tribute to his team that has "dedicated the last several years to designing and perfecting new methods and techniques that we believe will become widely used to advance the field of synthetic genomics."
The letters of DNA-- chemical building blocks called adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C) and thiamine (T) - are not easy chemicals to artificially synthesise into chromosomes. As the strands of DNA get longer they get increasingly brittle, making them more difficult to work with.
Before today's publication, the largest synthesised piece of DNA contained only 32,000 letters of code. Ham Smith says: "We have shown that building large genomes is now feasible and scalable so that important applications such as biofuels can be developed." However, such work would use other kinds of bacteria.
Jim Thomas of the ETC group (Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration) called on Dr Venter to slow down so that society could take on board the wider implications.
"Venter is claiming bragging rights to the world's longest length of synthetic DNA, but size isn't everything. The important question is not 'how long?' but 'how wise?'" says Thomas.
"While synthetic biology is speeding ahead in the lab and in the marketplace, societal debate and regulatory oversight is stalled and there has been no meaningful or inclusive discussion on how to govern synthetic biology in a safe and just way. In the absence of democratic oversight profiteering industrialists are tinkering with the building blocks of life for their own private gain. We regard that as unacceptable."
"The Venter Institute calls this synthetic life version 1.0 and acknowledges that it doesn't quite work yet - however, society shouldn't wait for the next upgrade - the stakes are far too serious," explains Kathy Jo Wetter of ETC Group.
"This news means scientists are one step closer to constructing a living, synthetic organism that has the potential for social, economic, and ecological disruption - and society is not at all prepared for that."