Synthetic Life Forms

The Tower of Babel must have been build in the style of one of those Babylonian ziggurats with the spiraled ramps. I get that picture when I read about what scientists today are doing with the spirals of DNA.

From the “Washington Post” article Synthetic DNA on the Brink of Yielding New Life Forms:

Scientists in Maryland have already built the world’s first entirely handcrafted chromosome — a large looping strand of DNA made from scratch in a laboratory, containing all the instructions a microbe needs to live and reproduce.

In the coming year, they hope to transplant it into a cell, where it is expected to “boot itself up,” like software downloaded from the Internet, and cajole the waiting cell to do its bidding. And while the first synthetic chromosome is a plagiarized version of a natural one, others that code for life forms that have never existed before are already under construction.

The cobbling together of life from synthetic DNA, scientists and philosophers agree, will be a watershed event, blurring the line between biological and artificial — and forcing a rethinking of what it means for a thing to be alive.
. . . . . . . . .

Today a scientist can write a long genetic program on a computer just as a maestro might compose a musical score, then use a synthesizer to convert that digital code into actual DNA. Experiments with “natural” DNA indicate that when a faux chromosome gets plopped into a cell, it will be able to direct the destruction of the cell’s old DNA and become its new “brain” — telling the cell to start making a valuable chemical, for example, or a medicine or a toxin, or a bio-based gasoline substitute.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • FW

    I can see mankind becoming capable of creating life.

    I do not see this necessarily being wrong or sinful.

    I do see christians trying to make this point. This point would not be on target I feel.

    ….but I do see all of this being man making something in HIS image. and that image is tainted , seemingly (!)indelibly, with sin and chaos.

    we should expect to see consequences because of this and so deal with these things with EXTREME caution. even genetically altered corn, chemical fertilizers and insecticides. penicillins, nuclear power….

    The closer man gets to things of real value, the greater the real and danger of serious misuse. History demonstrates this repeatedly.

  • Nathan

    I think FW might be right, though I know to say so sounds incredible and worrisome

    I was forced recently to think quite deeply about man’s technological prowess in the world – how would God have us look at this…

    Check out the comments / argumentation here:

    http://libraryjuicepress.com/blog/?p=329

  • http://www.geneveith.com Veith

    Hmmm, Nathan, thanks. Could technology even of this kind be part of mankind’s “vocation”?

  • Joe

    This all makes me very uneasy. At this point I can’t explain it, but it just seems wrong.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    It’s a bad analogy from a software point of view, as Steve Gigl notes here: http://www.stevegigl.com/index.php?id=2108

  • Nathan

    Dr. Veith,

    I don’t see much wrong with my argumentation in that debate I linked you to… and yet, if I am right there, it seems that I would have a hard time condemning what is described in the article.

    Hence Joe’s comment. I agree. But – at the same time, I’m sure most everyone felt the same way about people doing work on cadeavors (sp? – you know, dead bodies) when that very useful work began…

    These issues will definitely be getting no easier as we go forward. The idea of being “co-creators” with God is getting a whole lot more tangled.

  • Pingback: Now if they only had a clue what they made … « kainos

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  • http://lutheransandcontraception.blogspot.com Erich Heidenreich, DDS

    Perhaps you’ve heard this joke:

    One day a group of scientists got together and decided that man had come a long way and no longer needed God. They picked one scientist to go and tell Him that they were done with Him. The scientist walked up to God and said, “God, we’ve decided that we no longer need you. We’re to the point that we can clone people and do many miraculous things, so why don’t you just leave us be.”

    God listened patiently to the man and after the scientist was finished talking, God said, “Very well. How about this? Let’s have a man making contest.”

    The scientist, with great arrogance said, “That would be fine.”

    The Lord added, “Now, we are going to do this just like I did back in the old days with Adam.”

    The scientist said, “Sure, no problem,” then bent down and grabbed a handful of dirt.

    God said to the scientist, “No, no, no. You go get your own dirt!”

  • Dennis Peskey

    On Vocation,
    Consider the two questions this proposes:
    Can we? May we?
    The “can we” is rapidly being answered by the scientists in Maryland. The answer will soon be “yes”.
    I choose “may we” over “should we” in that, “should we” is compulsive in nature, “may we” is permissive. The answer lies in the statement “forcing a rethinking of what it means for a thing to be alive.”

    This “thing” these scientists speak of is a biological entity. It will not be created (in the Genesis sense); we lack that ability as Erich’s humor illuminated. But, in the shadow of the tower of Babel, we can alter our environment in a way that displeases our God. So – may we?

    What is primary reason for doing such a thing? If we are dealing with God’s gift of life, do these scientists and philosophers believe they should not hurt nor harm their neighbor, but help and support him in every physical need? Or is their ethical code based in the standard “higher learning” belief of Charles Darwin prevelant in our universities today.

    When I was young, I cowered at the constant worry of nuclear destruction – MAD, they called it! (For you younger readers, MAD is Mutually Assured Destruction; sheds a whole new light on “If I die before I wake – I pray thee Lord my soul to take.” Then try to peacefully sleep! Not!!!) Fortunately, a Pastor quelled all my fears with “oh ye of little faith.” With a quick lesson in eschatology, I learned we may make a mess of God’s creation – but we may not destroy his creation.

    The disgression was to make this point. I, nor any in Christ, should not worry. These scientist are quite capable of preforming alterations to the genetic code which may help or hurt. They answer yes to “can we” without ever asking the more important “may we.”

    Whenever scientists and philosophers speak of a “watershed” event; I immediately think of Noah. And when I think of Noah, I look to the heavens for the bow. There I find God’s covenant he will never forsake me and I can peacefully go to sleep in his grace.

    Peace be with you

  • FW

    #10 Denis pesky

    you made me consider a point denis. thanks.

    As a christian I consider all life sacred. not just the living humans, not even just the unborn fetuses ( I am not making an equality here, but within God´s ordering this IS an absolute statement). all life . from ants to sequoias are amazing miracles of God that make me praise Him. These things are in our custody and care. At times I feel radical ecologists (while EXTREMELY misguided as to motives and purpose and focus) remind us christians of an essential point.

    What mankind does with these newfound powers should be done with this same awe and reverence.

    Of course this will not happen.

    There is a God. He is in control. We are not Him.

    We are priviledged to be comforted by all three of these thoughts in our Savior and His blood.

  • Nathan

    FW:

    “What mankind does with these newfound powers should be done with this same awe and reverence.

    Of course this will not happen.”

    Even Christans, having the incurable infection of original sin within them in this life, will fail here…

    But… how critical for some Christians to be involved in sci work… possibly even work like this.

    IF… “these scientists and philosophers believe they should not hurt nor harm their neighbor, but help and support him in every physical need… “

  • S Bauer

    Maybe the question to debate is “Why would we want to make a synthetic life form?”

  • WebMonk

    Animals that perform all sorts of different functions such as waste handling. Very rapid photosynthesis plants which pump out oxygen from air, water and light. Oil-making microbes which are a hundred times faster than the tweaked, alcohol-making ones we have now. Heat generating animals for homes – feed them sugar and water. How about tribbles? I REALLY want a tribble! Organic computers. Self-regenerating building materials like housing siding.

    Go watch sci-fi to start your imagination as to bio-technology.

  • S Bauer

    Oh, like Stanislaw Lem’s “Star Diaries”? I’ve been devouring SF since I was eight. My question is not born out of a lack of imagination.

    Those would be some pretty nifty things to have around, I’ll admit. Some of them might even be helpful to improving the situations of millions of people. The track record of technological development, however, is that it won’t be used to help people who can’t pay for it. The rich will benefit, so that we have an even bigger slice of the total pie than before and the poor will continue to eat the crumbs that fall from the table. What I am trying to get at is why would we want to take life and turn it into a machine to serve our greed? Once we start down that road, where do we draw the line? “Make all the echinoderms you want but mammals are RIGHT OUT.”

    Here’s a suggestion, let’s go watch the final director’s cut of “BladeRunner”.

  • WebMonk

    I LOVE BladeRunner!

    I have to disagree with your statement about the rich being the ones who benefit from new tech while the poor just get the crumbs. That is true with everything – not just technology. In every civilization, the poor always gets the crumbs regardless of the level of tech. I would say that so far life shows that technology is one of the few things that has a disproportionate benefit toward the poor. (and I’m talking about the truly poor – dalits in India and herdsmen in Africa – not the ‘poor’ in America.)

    Because of technological advances even the poorest in India has a wealth of clothing and food available to them compared to 100 years ago. Why? Because tech has made clothing so cheap that people throw it away now, which makes it readily available to the truly poor. Ditto for health services – technological advances have made undreamed of health and medical services available to them.

    I am trying to show that technology brings benefits disproportionately to the poor, even though they still only get the crumbs. Tech doesn’t change people, we’ll still be incredibly selfish and uncaring, but a higher level of technology makes the ‘crumbs’ which we drop much better.

    I still think you’re being too limited in your imagination of what artificial life could be – your statement about mammals being banned is most likely going to be useless. If we can custom make animals, they won’t come even close to mammal/fish/reptile distinctions. What is a living organism that is thin as cloth, feeds off stains and body sweat, and can be made to maintain a certain temperature? Mammal? What if it grows too?

    Think what happens when technology like that becomes normal – even though people won’t care about the poor any more at all, the poorest beggar will be able to have clean, warm clothes.

  • S Bauer

    We have the resources to keep the poor one warm right now. The reason she isn’t warm is because there are things more important to us that we direct our resources toward – like bigger houses even though families have gotten smaller. Any change in this situation that comes from technological advance will be on the margin.

    My comment about mammals was made tongue in cheek to suggest precisely what you say – there will be no limit to what is done with the technology – one can’t draw a bright line anywhere. So does this mean there are no moral judgments to be made concerning its application, or does it mean that any moral judgments will be beside the point (as it seems increasingly to be the outcome of the abortion debate in this country). If we can make any living thing we can imagine, what harm is there in using the technology to tweak the human genome more and more. Makes the flap over steroid use in sports seem like debating whether sprinters should be allowed to use starting blocks. Are Christians going to participate in brave new world?

    Biblically, I am sure of two things: 1) There’s nothing that will stop this technological “advance” from dominating everything; 2) The downside will be greater than the upside.

    Am I saying that Christians should just bury their heads in the sand and give up trying to influence the direction we take with this technology? No. Do I believe such engagement will make a difference? No, it will not.

  • Dennis Peskey

    Brave new world indeed! A truely frightening phrase to any of God’s children. Pick your Huxley; Thomas, Julian or Aldous – they are of the same cloth. And quite the filthy rag it is they weave. Their sole purpose seems to be total obliteration of any God, particulary ours. I don’t feel it would be wise for Christians to leave such people in charge without some degree of oversight. I have yet to encounter any moral principle that evolved from a lump of coal.


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