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First synthetic cell raises concerns

WASHINGTON (BP)–Researchers announced May 20 the creation of the first synthetic cell, prompting President Obama to ask for a study of the implications and bioethicists to question the possible repercussions.

The breakthrough could be a step toward creating artificial microorganisms that observers say might be used for such purposes as absorbing greenhouse gases or developing vaccines and fuel. They, however, have also expressed concerns the research could result in the production of hazardous life forms or biological weapons.

The J. Craig Venter Institute, a genomic research organization with facilities in both Maryland and California, produced what it described as the “first self-replicating, synthetic bacterial cell.” Venter has a reputation as a maverick, having raced the federal government to map the human genome and finishing in a tie in 2000.

On the same day the milestone was announced, Obama called for his new Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to examine the possible benefits and risks of the new development “as its first order of business.” He asked the panel’s members, who were mostly appointed in April, to finish their study in six months and make recommendations for potential federal government actions.

In creating the synthetic cell, the Venter research team designed a genome, or full set of chromosomes, with a computer. The researchers gave the genome life using chemicals and no natural DNA. They transplanted it into a host cell, producing a synthetic cell controlled fully by the genome produced in the lab.

A variety of observers voiced reservations about the news.

“It’s too early to tell what this development may mean for the future of science,” Southern Baptist bioethicist C. Ben Mitchell told Baptist Press.

“But the potential for catastrophe is sufficient to warrant concern,” said Mitchell, professor of moral philosophy at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., and a consultant to the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “Unfortunately, Dr. Venter’s habit of self-promotion doesn’t provide much confidence that those concerns have been given appropriate attention.”

On his weblog, bioethics specialist Wesley Smith described it as “a remarkable achievement, and one that needs to be very carefully controlled because of the potential havoc it could cause…. [F]or now, it seems to me the primary concern is safety and the need to protect the environment. But we had better start thinking about how to regulate the technology. The last thing we need is a synthetic life wild, wild west.”

Helen Wallace, executive director of Genewatch UK, told British Broadcasting Corp. News, “If you release new organisms into the environment, you can do more harm than good. By releasing them into areas of pollution [with the aim of clearing it up], you’re actually releasing a new kind of pollution. We don’t know how these organisms will behave in the environment.”

The Vatican’s leading bioethics expert adopted a cautious approach.

“If it is used toward the good, to treat pathologies, we can only be positive” in evaluating its effect, Rino Fisichella told Italy’s government-run television, according to the Associated Press. “If it turns out not to be … useful to respect the dignity of the person, then our judgment would change.

“We look at science with great interest,” he said. “But we think above all about the meaning that must be given to life. We can only reach the conclusion that we need God, the origin of life.”

A report on the research is published at the online site of the journal Science (www.sciencemag.org).
Compiled by Tom Strode, Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.

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