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The scientists Craig Venter, left, and Dr Hamilton Smith announced on Thursday that they produced a living cell powered by manmade DNA.
J. CRAIG VENTER INSTITUTE/HO HANDOUT
The scientists Craig Venter, left, and Dr Hamilton Smith announced on Thursday that they produced a living cell powered by manmade DNA.

Genome scientist who created synthetic life denies 'playing God'

Watchdog calls for moratorium on synthetic life research until a full public debate and an effective system of global regulation is in place

LONDON // An American scientist who has created the world's first artificial life form from a computer model yesterday denied that he was "playing God". Despite fears over potential dangers posed by synthetic organisms, maverick DNA pioneer Craig Venter has created the first life form that can reproduce by breathing life into a bacterium using genes assembled in the laboratory.

Hailed by most scientists as a massive breakthrough, the news revealed in the journal Science also brought warnings that the development could lead to the production of new and frightening biological weapons, as well as raising fundamental ethical questions over man-made life forms. However, Dr Venter, the first scientist to map the human genome, said the development presented mankind with unlimited opportunities for progress in fields such as new fuel sources, the manufacture of artificial organs, the development of vaccines and cleaning up pollution.

Speaking to the BBC from Washington yesterday, Dr Venter dismissed suggestions that he was playing God. "That's a term that comes up every time there is a new medical or scientific breakthrough associated with biology," he said. "It's been a goal of humanity from the earlier stages to try to control nature - that's how we got domesticated animals. "This is the next stage in our understanding. It is a baby step in our understanding of how life fundamentally works and maybe how we can get some new handles on trying to control these microbial systems to benefit humanity."

He also played down the danger of bioterrorism, saying: "Most people are in agreement that there is a slight increase in the potential for harm but there's an exponential increase in the potential benefit to society." Dr Venter's researchers at his laboratory in Maryland effectively "rebooted" a simple microbe by transplanting into it a set of genetic code sequences that were built from scratch. The genome was copied from the blueprint contained in Mycoplasma mycoides, a simple bacterium that infects cattle and goats.

Dr Venter said: "This is the first synthetic cell that's been made, and we call it synthetic because the cell is totally derived from a synthetic chromosome. This is an important step, we think, both scientifically and philosophically. It's certainly changed my views of the definitions of life and how life works." But warnings over the breakthrough were sounded by Human Genetics Alert, an independent, secular watchdog group based in London.

It called for a moratorium on synthetic life research until there had been a full public debate and an effective system of global regulation was in place. Dr David King, the group's director, said: "What is really dangerous is these scientists' ambitions for total and unrestrained control over nature, which many people describe as 'playing God'. The claim of authorship of nature goes hand-in-hand with the claim to monopoly patent rights over it.

"Scientists' understanding of biology falls far short of their technical capabilities. We have already learnt to our cost the risks that gap brings, for the environment, animal welfare and human health." Prof Julian Savulescu, professor in practical ethics at Oxford University, said: "Venter is creaking open the most profound door in humanity's history, potentially peeking into its destiny. "He is not merely copying life artificially as Prof Ian Wilmut [who cloned the first mammal, Dolly the sheep, 14 years ago] did or modifying it radically by genetic engineering.

"He is going towards the role of a god: creating artificial life that could never have existed naturally - creating life from the ground up using basic building blocks. "At the moment it is basic bacteria just capable of replicating. This is a step towards something much more controversial: creation of living beings with capacities and natures that could never have naturally evolved. "The potential is in the far future, but real and significant: dealing with pollution, new energy sources, new forms of communication. But the risks are also unparalleled."

Other scientists, however, were far more enthusiastic. Commenting on the breakthrough in Science, Prof Mark Bedau, editor of the journal Artificial Life, called it "a defining moment in the history of biology and technology". @Email: dsapsted@thenational.ae

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