Saturday, May 22, 2010

Synthia - End of life for humans?

While numerous bright minds around the world are talking about the creation of life by Biologist Craig Venter, the human who played god, some things are to be noted. For centuries, humans have tried mutating various species of organisms for profit (yes... for profit. be it political, medical, research, military or for else), it has been always with the help of other carrier organism or a substrate.

This is the first time a completely synthetic organism has been brought to life after which it has continued it's biological life. As there is always two sides of the coin, the risks out weigh the benefits in this case. Once some body has done it, it finds its way into the most dangerous, cunning minds around the world who would replicate it for profit. People argue about the benefits of creating complex organisms to turn the world into a better place. Creating an organism that can reduce CO2 from atmosphere, turn waste into fuel, bla bla and what not. As seen so far in human history and with the other so called inventions, human life it put at more risk than ever. With the advent of artificial life, the natural habitat of humans on this so called Planet Earth has started the count down.

It is not being overly sarcastic or pessimistic about the developments / advancements, but as humans we are causing a slow death to the planet by consuming it's natural resources and causing the system to fail slowly but steadily, yet but rant only at the face value while continuing to do whatever.

While the research has been on for almost 15 years before a life form could be created. But once it has been, it will continue to emerge some where on the planet in near future. The worry is how deadly / lethal it could get? What if an organism could make a targeted human population to disappear? What control / protection do a normal person has over a deadly lab organism soon to be delivered into his food chain? Was it really necessary to create something like this? What if the technology gets into wrong hands? Would there be chaos everywhere? It looks like soon there will be.

At least as played as natural disasters or unknown epidemics, a plague will definitely engross the world costing the lives of many. Was this the case with almost any technology that could be weaponised? Yes, but most were not so deadly. For years, there have been biological and chemical warfare and even there are excellent footages in Discovery Channel dating back to the pre world war 1 and 2 times, but nothing will be more deadly as it will get in near future.

This is like breaking the security of the already weaker humans.

Update: Now scientists are claiming whatever Venter has done is not exactly artificial life. Following explanation is quoted from a popular indian daily news paper:

Are the bacterial cells created in J Craig Venter’s laboratories in the US actually synthetic life? After the hype and hoopla over the announcement of the world’s first “manmade living cells”, scientists are getting down to answering that question. And this is what most of them have to say: Venter’s team has achieved a stupendous technical feat, but the cells cannot be called synthetic.
Using an analogy from everyday life, what the team did is akin to completely reprogramming a computer, but not building one from scratch. Here’s why.

As the first step in the decadelong work, Venter and his researchers mapped the genome of a simple bacteria, Mycoplasma mycoides. Genome is the ‘brain’ of any cell and contains sequences of DNA which carry all the genetic information needed for the cell — and by extension, the organism — to function.
Like all living matter, the genome is made of chemicals. What Venter’s team did next is being hailed as a tour de force. It manufactured the M mycoides’ genome, step by step in the lab, using, in Venter’s words, “four bottles of chemicals”. This synthetic genome, identical in every way to the ‘original’ except for certain harmless ‘signatures’ the team put in to mark it as a builtin-the-lab version, was then inserted into another type of bacteria after the bacteria’s own genome had been sucked out.
Venter describes what happened next: “As soon as the genome goes into the cell, it starts making new proteins encoded in its DNA and converts it into a new synthetic species. It’s a completely synthetic cell now, it has replicated over a billion times. The only DNA it has now is the synthetic one that we made.”
In other words, the once the synthetic M mycoides genome is introduced in the bacterial cell, it transforms into an M mycoides. When it replicates, the off-springs too are M mycoides, carrying copies of the man-made genome. Venter believes, for all practical purposes, this is synthetic life. But other experts are saying that though the cell’s control station is artificial, the cell itself isn’t. Neither is it a new form of life —the artificial genome is an exact replica of a M mycoides genome.
Says Delhi University Vice-Chancellor Deepak Pental, himself a biotechnologist, “In this case, the bacterial cell is being seen as a shell, an envelope into which man-made genome is inserted. But the shell is much more than an envelope.”
Nobel-winning British biologist Paul Nurse elaborates the point. In an conversation with BBC, he says, “Venter’s work is a major advance. But it’s not a creation of synthetic life...Creation of synthetic life would be to make an entire bacterial cell through chemicals.”  Nurse, Venter’s rival in many ways, believes creating an entirely new cell from scratch, though theoretically possible, would require a level of technology likely to be reached “long after we are dead”. He points out that in Venter’s method, there’s very little scope of deviating from nature’s script. “In an earlier attempt, Venter’s team got just one genetic ‘letter’ wrong — out of a million — and this cell simply didn’t function,” he says.


Craig Venter's team created the genome of an M mycoides bacteria in the lab and inserted it into another type of bacteria. The recipient bacteria started behaving like an M mycoides. Its offspring too carried copies of the man-made genome 
Venter says the cells are synthetic since they are controlled by genes made in lab  
Other experts say that for any cell to be called synthetic, all its components should’ve been created artificially — perhaps possible in theory, but as yet technically impossibl.

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