After causing a minor furore amongst scientific circles over his attempts to claim a patent on "life," Craig Venter, the maverick researcher who helped map the human genome, and his colleagues reached another major milestone earlier this week by becoming the first team to build a "synthetic chromosome" - thus setting the stage for the creation of the first ever artificial organism.
To do so, Venter and a team of 20 scientists headed by Nobel laureate Hamilton Smith used lab-made chemicals to constitute a chromosome 381 genes long - containing over 580,000 base pairs - based on Mycoplasma genitalium's DNA sequence. The resulting life form, dubbed Mycoplasma laboratorium, was then transplanted into a living bacterium and allowed to gain control of its machinery - a step necessary for it to metabolize and begin replication. While Venter is hoping to use this artificial life form as a springboard towards furthering his efforts in producing alternative energy sources - creating bacteria specifically for the purpose of soaking up extra carbon dioxide or for the purpose of making butane/propane-like fuels, for example - others are worried about what this new development may entail.
"Governments, and society in general, is way behind the ball. This is a wake-up call - what does it mean to create new life forms in a test-tube? [Venter is creating a] chassis on which you could build almost anything. It could be a contribution to humanity such as new drugs or a huge threat to humanity such as bio-weapons," cautioned Pat Mooney, the director of ETC group, a Canadian bioethics organization.
Venter dismissed these concerns by arguing that proper enforcement standards would help negate such threats and - more importantly - by claiming that the positive ramifications would far outweigh any potential negatives: "We are not afraid to take on things that are important just because they stimulate thinking," he said. "We are dealing in big ideas. We are trying to create a new value system for life. When dealing at this scale, you can't expect everybody to be happy."
Let the arguments begin.