Monday, June 04, 2012

Hylton on Venter and the Advent of Artifical Organisms

So I recently read this New York Times article by Wil S. Hylton about the work of Craig Venter.  Venter is a scientist (a geneticist/biologist sort of guy) who heads up a biotech company called Synthetic Genomics Inc..  Venter's organization is currently striving to develop a form of artificially created, free-living bacteria that will have less DNA than any organisms existing in nature.  If S.G.I. can create such lifeforms, they intend to use them as a framework, attaching other genes to their bare bones structure- genes  that can be specifically selected with an eye toward performing certain predetermined biological functions.
Venter's organization has already created one artifical organism thus far.  The fact that their first attempt was modeled after a naturally occurring bacterium led to criticism of their work by geneticists who argued that Venter had not actually created artificial life (as he had claimed), but that he had only copied natural life.  Venter's response was that this initial effort was nothing but a "proof of concept".  Now that he knows that the process can work, he intends to use it to do other things.
Venter's new free living, framework organism should, if successful, put all such criticisms to rest.

Whether for positive or negative, the implications for Venter's work are pretty huge.  I find it extremely interesting, but I'm not sure how to feel about it.

On the one hand, Venter and those working with him envision a world where engineered microorganisms could produce clean energy, increase the efficiency food cultivation, and help remove toxins and pollutants from our environment.  Organisms could be articifically engineered that might actually devour pollution and excrete oils that could be used as fuel.  Life forms might be created which could produce human foods with yields ten times greater than that which could be produced by traditional methods (while using equivalent resources).
People frequently speak of the impact of various technologies in hyperbolic terms, but Venter's work seems to actually hold the promise of changing the human condition- and potentially on a global scale.  While there are definitely no promises or guarantees as to the arrival date of significant breakthroughs, there are a  lot of very intelligent people who are beginning to think that useful artificially engineered organisms are a very real possibility in our very near future.

Like I said, I'm conflicted.  We're talking about organisms that are being engineered at the genetic level with an eye toward performing various biological "jobs" that are meant to benefit the human race.  Of course this could potentially be a really good thing.  People wouldn't be spending millions and millions of dollars to make this happen if there wasn't some sort of good that could come out of it.  We're in desperate need of cleaner fuel, more food, and plants that can turn pollution into fresh air.  Sounds great. 
On the other hand, we're creating new life from the ground up with the purpose of using it, like a machine, to perform some sort very specific function and then die.
That strikes me as weird.  For a number of reasons.
First of all, it feels, at the risk of sounding a little melodramatic, it puts human beings in this sort of godlike position.  Literally.  For the beings that we create, we will sit in the position of being the creators of life for this teleological chain of events.  That means that once we create new life, we more or less bare the responsibility for all of the causes and effects that it causes later. 
We're custom designing lifeforms just to serve our own ends. 
On the one hand, it's important to keep in mind that in a certain sense this isn't all that radical a departure from the sort of thing that we've been doing for millenia.  Since humans first engaged in agriculture we've been selectively breeding various species of plants and animals that serve our purposes, selectively encouraging certain genetic traits by isolating those traits, and encouraging the offspring to multiply- cross breeding various strains of certain species and trying to combine genetically compatible organisms with one another in order to produce specific results.  So in some sense we've been engaged in genetic engineering for a long, long time.
But selectively breeding pre-existing, naturally-occurring life forms still seems a whole lot different than the wholesale creation of life gene by gene from the ground up, doesn't it?
As Hylton touches upon in his article, sci-fi cliche or not, it just feels like there's a certain amount of arrogance in the assumption that we, as humans, understand the intricate network of life well enough to start introducing new, artificially created species into the world without fear of some serious ramifications.  As also mentioned, artificial organisms specifically designed to survive and thrive in order to meet our specific purposes might also ultimately find a way to propagate in unexpected ways.  Although Venter and those pursuing similar work speak of creating organisms with inherent safeguards and control mechanisms (e.g., dietary requirements not occurring in nature), do we really understand the nuances of mutation well enough to be sure that we aren't creating organisms that won't quickly evolve into something much more problematic?  Without delving too far into the realm of apocalyptic science fiction, one can certainly envision scenarios in which an artificial life form might end up being an extremely problematic invasive species.  If we create a bacteria or algae that's too successful, wouldn't it be reasonable that this might make us nervous, too?  If we're already breeding yellow algae (as opposed to green) in order for it to grow more prolifically at greater depths within a body of water (and we are already doing this), is it unreasonable to imagine our lakes and rivers choked to death with the stuff?
Do we even understand what sort of genetic mutations an organism might undergo when the starting point was something that was never found in nature in the first place?  If we create a form of bacteria with a stripped down genetic code, should we be worried about other genetic variations arising in that organism in addition to the ones that we intentionally created?
I don't really know, and those sorts of questions quickly move the conversation well beyond my understanding or area of knowledge.
I just don't want the entire state of Texas to end up covered with some sort of super algae because we intentionally tried to breed a food source that was especially hearty.
Maybe I'm just a philistine, but I worry about these sorts of issues.  I worry about the fact that our greatest reassurances in this area keep coming from people who stand to make a whole lot of money off the same projects that they're telling us are perfectly safe.  I worry that in our haste to address some very troubling real world concerns (i.e., pollution, food shortage, fuel scarcity, etc.) we may be recklessly rushing into situations that might ultimately prove equally dangerous or problematic.
Anyway, the potential promise that artificial life holds probably makes it irresistible as an area of research and development, and, honestly, the benefits probably do outweigh the risks (I would hate to miss out on a great opportunity because of alarmism). 

(All I'm saying is that if one of Venter's scientists types in a wrong letter
on a keyboard somewhere, this is what we're looking at, people.)
But maybe we need some sort of new agency to keep an eye on what's going on in this area.  Maybe we need a group of disinterested scientists who can advise us about potential hazards instead of relying upon the reassurances of those who are heavily invested in success.
This just feels like an area where the science is rapidly outpacing the law, and it might just be a good idea to rein developers in a bit.  If  some sort of bioengineered organism were to become released into our environment and being to spread, it might be a bit difficult to get the genie back into the bottle.
I'd like to think that when the algae apocalypse comes, at least it arrived despite our best efforts to the contrary.  ;-)

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