Saturday, June 30, 2007

“Human-made life form” provokes ethical concerns

Washington Post reported yesterday (June 29) a landmark study on DNA transplant.

“Scientists said yesterday that they had transplanted a microbe's entire, tangled mass of DNA into a closely related organism, a delicate operation that cleanly transformed the recipient from one species into the other.

After the operations, the "patients" -- single-celled organisms resembling bacteria -- dutifully obeyed their new genomes and by every measure exhibited the biological personas of the donors.

"This is equivalent to changing a Macintosh computer into a PC by inserting a new piece of [PC] software," said study leader J. Craig Venter, chief executive of Synthetic Genomics, a Rockville company racing to be the first to create fully synthetic, replicating cells.

The success confirms that chromosomes can survive transplantation intact and literally rewrite the identity and occupation of the cells they move into. That is a crucial finding for scientists who hope to make novel life forms by packing synthetic chromosomes into hollow, laboratory-grown cells.” (full text)

The same research was also reported by the English online journal under the catchy title “genome transplant makes species switch” on June 28 with emphasis on the potential for researches to design a new species from scratch. Though both articles pointed out that the research is still in an early stage and the design rules for an entirely artificial genome are still poorly understood, the fact that the “world’s first synthetic bug” is thriving in a test tube in Rockville has provoked many ethical concerns.

Earlier this month (June 7), while it was still uncertain if this synthetic bug would thrive, the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC Group) launched a campaign against Venter’s attempt to patent this research worldwide. “These monopoly claims signal the start of a high-stakes commercial race to synthesize and privatize synthetic life forms,” claimed ETC Group’s Jim Thomas. Pat Mooney, also from ETC Group, said: "For the first time, God has competition. Venter and his colleagues have breached a societal boundary, and the public hasn't even had a chance to debate the far-reaching social, ethical and environmental implications of synthetic life." (related report)

“Patenting of genes has been a controversial matter for many years, but the advent of synthetic biology takes the debate to a new level.” commented Philip Ball from

Another controversy, with different focus, lies in synthetic biology’s link to global problems. While ETC Group dismisses efforts to use synthetic biology to address global problems as one of their marketing strategies, reporters consider Venter’s goal to use his microbes to provide cheap biofuels as a replacement for oil applausive. Similar attempt includes Jay Keasling of the University of California, Berkeley, who also has been working for several years to engineer microbes to synthesize a compound called artemisinin — one of the best available drugs for fighting malaria.

For more details:
Patenting Pandora’s Bug: Goodbye, Dolly...Hello, Synthia! J. Craig Venter Institute Seeks Monopoly Patents on the World’s First-Ever Human-Made Life Form (ETC Group)
The patent threat to designer biology (, subscription required)

Minimal genome patent from the Venter Institute

[Editor's note, added June 30, 2007 at 5:17pm: Welcome to Kuan-Ting Chi! She is an attorney and a full-time research student at the law department of the Sheffield Institute of Biotechnological Law and Ethics, UK, and also a part-time research assistant for the EU project: Sustainable Introduction of GMOs into European Agriculture. You can see more about her background here.]

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