May 21, 2010

Science Fiction Meets Real World — The First “Synthetic” Cell

by Heather Falconer

Image courtesy of Science/AAAS

It isn’t quite the same as Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley’s splicing of human and animal DNA to create a human-chimera, but scientists in in Rockville, Maryland have announced that they have created the very first “synthetic” cell. In today’s issue of Science, Gibson et al. working at the J. Craig Venter Institute provide information on the research that has led to the creation of a chromosome from scratch, and ultimately to a self-replicating, live cell. The nucleotides of a common bacterium’s DNA were digitalized using a computer, then assembled into sequence segments. Many of the sequences even carry a watermark with the names of the scientists involved in the project!

The research seems to have come straight out of Hollywood (ironically, Brody’s film Splice is about to be released in theaters). While they have not created a new life form, the discovery is being heralded by some scientists as the greatest scientific discovery in the history of humankind, putting the team on a pedestal with Galileo and Descartes because this work could potentially act as a stepping stone to the creation of novel life forms, bio-fuels and medicines, among other things.

But, with great power comes great responsibility, and individuals concerned about the ethics and consequences inherent in such a discovery have voiced their opinions and concerns in Science‘s rival, the journal Nature. The eight opinions shared serve as an excellent resource for anyone interested in exploring controversy in science or ethics (for more on these, see our Visionlearning’s Scientific Ethics module).

Tell us what you think? In light of this research, should the federal government set more detailed guidelines on what can and cannot be done in the laboratory? Is this potentially the eugenics of the 21st century? Where do we draw the line in manipulating DNA?

Heather Falconer

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Heather Falconer holds undergraduate degrees in Graphic Arts and Environmental Science, as well as an MFA in Writing and an MLitt in Literature. She is currently completing her PhD in Rhetoric and Composition, with an emphasis on rhetoric in/and/of science. Heather has worked internationally in academic publishing as both an author and editor, and has taught a wide range of topics – from research writing to marine biology – in the public and private educational sectors.