Albert Mohler might be freaking out at some of the new biotechnologies, but he missed a big one, one that might give him nightmares: synthetic biology. This week’s Nature has a very fine editorial on a subject that’s probably going to be more troubling to the religious than evolution, in a few years. We’re on the verge of being able to create life in the laboratory.*
Synthetic biology provides a welcome antidote to chronic vitalism.
Many a technology has at some time or another been deemed an affront to God, but perhaps none invites the accusation as directly as synthetic biology. Only a deity predisposed to cut-and-paste would suffer any serious challenge from genetic engineering as it has been practised in the past. But the efforts to design living organisms from scratch —; either with a wholly artificial genome made by DNA synthesis technology or, more ambitiously, by using non-natural, bespoke molecular machinery —; really might seem to justify the suggestion, made recently by the ETC Group, an environmental pressure group based in Ottawa, Canada, that “for the first time, God has competition”.
That accusation was levelled at scientists from the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland, based on the suspicion that they had synthesized an organism with an artificial genome in the laboratory. The suspicion was unfounded, but this feat will surely be achieved in the next few years, judging from the advances reported earlier this month at the Kavli Futures Symposium in Ilulissat, Greenland, on the convergence of synthetic biology and nanotechnology, and the progress towards artificial cells.
What’s particularly refreshing about the article is that it downplays the creation of life in the lab—it’s going to be an impressive technical achievement, but it will not be a “momentous step.” There is no wide chasm between chemistry and life, and crossing that threshold shouldn’t (and won’t, I expect, unless the politicking is particularly effective) be a Nobel-winning accomplishment, nor is it going to surprise anyone. In the next generation, it’s going to be taken for granted as just part of biochemistry, just like no organic chemists are shaken up by the routine synthesis of urea anymore.
It ought to shake up the social consciousness, though: another bastion of vitalism will have fallen. It ought to shift a few attitudes about some common issues, too.
Synthetic biology’s view of life as a molecular process lacking moral thresholds at the level of the cell is a powerful one. And it can and perhaps should be invoked to challenge characterizations of life that are sometimes used to defend religious dogma about the embryo. If this view undermines the notion that a ‘divine spark’ abruptly gives value to a fertilized egg —; recognizing as it does that the formation of a new being is gradual, contingent and precarious —; then the role of the term ‘life’ in that debate might acquire the ambiguity that it has always warranted.
Biology is just going to get more and more fun.
*First person to recite that pathetic “get your own dirt” joke is going to be rewarded with disemvowelment.