Straight out of the pages of a sci-fi book, scientists claim they are close to creating the first artificial life form. No, this isn’t something out of Clarke or Asimov, this is actual science from the J Craig Venter Institute in Maryland. Dr. Craign Venter, somewhat of a controversial figure in science circles, claims that a synthetic organism is likely just months away as a large obstacle has finally been overcome. His claim is that the first man-made organism will be a bacteria that is a bit on the simple side, but still an important step on the road of evolution. Reporting on the work of Dr. Venter’s team the Daily Mail stated:

In January, the team created the entire genetic code of a new bacterium. They now hope to transfer such artificial DNA into a host cell to create a new species, the journal Science reported.

Yesterday Dr Venter said: ‘Assuming we don’t make any errors, I think it should work and we should have the first synthetic species by the end of the year.’

The team successfully transplanted the genome of one bacteria into another for the first time in 2007.

They then created the first entirely man-made genome. But previous attempts to introduce the synthetic genome into another organism and take control of the new bacteria all failed.

Actually, this is not the first claim of man-made organisms. A patent for a man-made organism was filed in 2007. This microbe was the first designed and built chemically from scratch and was also led by the Venter science team. This was a much more simplified genome that was constructed from scratch. Other patents have been filed by companies like Monsanto for genetically altered seeds and plant life.

Venter’s hope is that more complex bacteria will follow, but they would essentially be programmed by scientists to do helpful chores. Imagine an organism that could burn cleaner coal or eat toxic waste. Something like this could solve many of the world problems if we truly could “program” the bacteria to perform useful tasks. However, this could also be used for more nefarious purposes as well. The same bacteria could easily be programmed to wreak havoc and kill humans. While this may sound like a nightmare scenario from the latest Steven King book, the more we delve into this realm of science, the more these apocalyptic scenarios also become likely. Actually, I think this feeds into the paranoia and worry that people have about companies like Monsanto, who would clearly be interested in this kind of technology. There are already allegations against Monsanto for creating these “terminator” seeds by altering the genetics of the crops. Essentially these seeds have only one generation of life and then become fallow (not sure if that is the correct terminology, I’m not a farmer). Basically, you can’t save the seed and re-plant the next year because they don’t reproduce. This has caused real problems and become a rallying cry for the anti-globalists.

So, is this kind of technology safe or even wise? I think clearly that it offers interesting possibilities, but I do worry about unintended consequences. Especially when large corporations control the technology for their own nefarious reasons and not for the benefit of mankind.

Monsanto Conspiracy