Creating a Cell: Science Plays God

Creation is a heavy word these days, so when it showed up in the title of one of this summer’s hottest science papers, it drew me up short.

The word itself comes from the Latin for ‘bringing forth into being,’ which already sounds pretty deep. But then it also has the meaning ‘that which God has created, the world and all in it’—and we’re clearly into the realm of the religious.

Creation of a bacterial cell controlled by a chemically synthesized genome’ is the title of the paper. It was published in the prestigious journal Science and came out of the Craig Venter Institute. Venter is the scientist whose name always comes connected to the word ‘maverick’—he’s the one who first made his name by bringing big private dollars into molecular biotechnology to compete with the federal government and speed up the sequencing of the first human genome (that is, the determination of the identity and order of all the billions of DNA base pairs in one human). The title here is certainly in keeping with Venter’s bodaciousness.

Cooking from Scratch

This is exciting stuff. Imagine if you could synthesize from scratch an organism that would quickly eat up all the oil that BP spilled in the Gulf of Mexico. Or, what if you could make an organism that would produce energy? This work represents a quantum leap toward such possibilities.

Here’s what Venter and his colleagues actually did. They synthesized from scratch the entire one-million DNA base pair genome of a bacterium of species A. Then they put that genome into a bacterial cell of a species B, closely related to A, which had had its own genome removed. The new cell was able to divide and take on the personality of species A cells. Thus, new cells were brought forth into being, but from a man-made source (albeit perfectly copied form nature).

Not dismissing, but putting aside for the moment all the usual fears and brouhahas such work inspires: how can humans take on the role of God like this? What if these newly-created organisms escape and mix in the external environment (as many of their less-drastically altered genetically modified brethren have)? Who should decide if such research is ethical or even legal?! Should Homeland Security get involved?

My thought is: Venter has a point. Whether he just meant to be provocative or not, his new life form is certainly part of ‘that which God has created, the world and all in it.’

All ideas can be used for good or evil. Certainly not all that is created is great, or even good, but certainly it all has the potential to be at least good. Humans create new humans all the time. It’s how we nurture those new creations that matters. Here is where to spend our energy.

I suppose you could argue, and it certainly has been argued, that ‘in the beginning’ God created everything as it is now, in which case when new things are created in this burgeoning field of Venter’s known as synthetic biology, you might be a bit miffed. But farmers and animal breeders have known for eons that species are changing all the time and that they can affect that change (evolutionary biologists have merely formalized the relevant processes involved).

We must ponder all those big ethical questions I mention above, and indeed President Obama, sparked by Venter’s creation paper, has charged his bioethics advisory council to address these questions and make recommendations.

For the record, to begin some response to those questions: humans ‘play God’ all the time, every day (from the design, testing, and using of drugs to handing down court decisions); such new organisms need to be strictly regulated and monitored, easily traceable, and tested in the external environment, because they always do eventually enter it; the government, industry, universities, and scientists at the federal and international level should be and are discussing and monitoring such issues; Homeland Security should be (and of course is already) aware of and monitoring such research.

But I have a suggestion: let’s take this—the language of creation and religion crossing into science—as a positive, if provocative sign, perhaps even as a call for engagement. Where ethicists, religious leaders, and scientists can really make a difference is working together to nurture creation: that of God’s and that of God’s creations.