Friday, May 21, 2010

Creating Life

"When I found so astonishing a power placed within my hands, I hesitated a long time concerning the manner in which I should employ it. Although I possessed the capacity of bestowing animation, yet to prepare a frame for the reception of it, with all its intricacies of fibres, muscles, and veins, still remained a work of inconceivable difficulty and labour. I doubted at first whether I should attempt the creation of a being like myself, or one of simpler organisation..." (Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, Chapter 4)

We crossed an interesting boundary as a species this last week.

For the first time in human history, we managed to create a living organism, more or less from scratch. It was of rather "simpler organisation" than the tormented being created by Dr. Frankenstein, just a straight up single-celled critter. Yeah, true, it wasn't even an original design, its genome having been copied carefully from an existing microbe. And folks have done sorta kinda similar stuff before. And we did, a la Mary Shelley's monster, cobble it together out of parts of previously living things.

Whichever way, its an impressive event. The simple living creature created in the lab of geneticists Craig Venter and Hamilton Smith is unique among earthly life forms. The genetic material within it is entirely synthetic, intentionally assembled by humankind. It can reproduce. It is alive, yet does not come from a living parent.

The ramifications of this remain clouded. Venter and others see it through rose colored glasses, as a way to create organisms that will produce medicines and biofuels. Others see it as an ominous harbinger of new and terrible bioweapons, or inadvertent pandemics brought about as we fiddle with things that we don't really fully understand. Our advances in genetics have posed something of a challenge for ethicists, as our ability to manipulate the building blocks of life has outpaced our development and maturity as a species.

Theologically, this is something of a conundrum, too. Forming beings from earth-stuff and bringing them to life is...well...typically the business of the Maker. Yet here, without question, is a feat that constitutes the formation of a living thing, even if that thing is a very rudimentary knockoff. And if it "completely changes" the way we understand life, as Dr. Venter suggested in an article in the Washington Post, is this necessarily a good thing? Where will that lead us?

Things do get curiouser and curiouser.