#28: Create New Life Forms

What do God, Dr. Frankenstein, and Lady Gaga have in common? They are all names that geneticist-cum-media-sensation Craig Venter has been called since announcing in May that he had created the first synthetic life form. 

In countless press interviews and articles, Venter detailed how he had implanted a computer-synthesized genome into an existing bacterium cell, which began making a wholly different set of proteins, causing the characteristics of the first species to disappear and a new species to emerge. This self-replicating bacterium, dubbed Synthia, is the first life form whose genome has not evolved over millions of years but was rather engineered using a computer. And of course the question du jour was whether or not this was "playing God." But the general consensus has been "no": Venter hasn't actually animated a previously inanimate object, in the way that must have occurred when life first began on earth roughly 3.5 billion years ago. (Nobel prize-winning geneticist Joseph Szostak is currently trying to do just that but has failed up to this point.) 

Nevertheless, this is a tremendously important breakthrough. We've "entered into areas where no one's ever been before," Venter says in the video below, and it has implications both scientific and philosophical. "It certainly changed my views of definitions of life and how life works," he says. It is clear now that our DNA, our genetic code is like the computer software of our bodies. "Life is basically the result of an information process, a software process," Venter explains.

Venter says the potential for this technology is extraordinary. From biofuels to helpful chemicals and food substances, he imagines a host of applications for this genetic engineering. Venter calls it a "powerful tool for what we want biology to do." We might be able to engineer bacteria that metabolize oil in the case of oil spills like the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico earlier this summer. Venter also says it is already being applied to the manufacture of vaccines, potentially shortening the process for making the flu vaccine each year by 99%.

Arthur Caplan, director of the Center of Bioethics at University of Pennsylvania, told Big Think that the potential benefits of Venter's breakthrough, and synthetic biology in general, are huge. He thinks the sort of industrialized manufacturing of synthetic microbes that Venter envisions is "very plausible but very far away"—at least 10 to 20 years in the future. As with any revolutionary technology, there are of course some objections, says Caplan. Critics complain that synthetic biology (a) is too dangerous, (b) risks "playing God," (c) could be put to bad use, or (d) is a slippery slope. But Caplan believes that we have the ability to manage these risks and that the potential benefits for humanity outweigh any fears. "Genetic engineering of microbes has been going on for a while...and we've managed to contain any adverse effects from their manufacture," Caplan says. 


Venter believes his achievement will spark a second industrial revolution in the field of biotech. Exxon Mobil has already pledged to invest $600 million to develop biofuels from algae, and that is just the beginning. We are "entering a new era where we're only limited by our imaginations," says Venter. As for something on the scale of synthetic humans or animals, the science is perhaps decades away—Venter's creation has just over 1 million letters of genetic code, whereas the human genome numbers almost 3 billion. But the applications for industry and medicine remain staggering.

Why We Should Reject This

Surprisingly, the major opposition to Venter's work hasn't come from religious groups, many of whom have actually endorsed it. The Vatican praised this breakthrough for its potential to cure deadly diseases. Instead critics oppose Venter's work not on philosophical grounds but rather for the potential for a man-made organism to wreak havoc on the delicate balance of earth's ecosystems if it were to escape the lab. A synthetic species, which has not evolved on Earth over the past three billion years, might not obey the rules of the natural world. It could devastate plants and animals which would have never been been exposed to it before and would never have evolved any biological defenses to it. 

Venter has assured the media that his lab has created many safeguards to protect his creations from escaping the lab, but ETC Group, a watchdog group based in Ontario and one of Venter's most vocal critics, remains skeptical. This is a "very new and poorly understood technology," program manager Jim Thomas tells Big Think. Venter is "claiming to be able to make assumptions about the safety of genetic biology, which as a field has never been investigated." Similar claims were made about genetically modified plants, yet there is now widespread contamination of corn populations around the globe. "Life has a way of being rather surprising—including synthetic life," he says.

Julian Savulescu, Director of Oxford's Uehiro Center for Practical Ethics, agrees that Venter's advance is "fraught with peril" and could even spell the end of humanity. "The dark side of great power is accidental calamity and human abuse," he told the New York Daily News. "In 2001, scientists genetically modified mousepox and created a strain that killed 100% of mice. The same changes could be made to human smallpox, the greatest infectious killer in human history. Soon, terrorists will not have to get their hands on military stashes of the virus held in the former Soviet Union. With further progress in synthetic biology, it will be possible to cheaply and easily synthesize pathogens, and even modify them to make them perfectly lethal and superinfectious."

More Resources

— "Creation of a Bacterial Cell Controlled by a Chemically Synthesized Genome" (2010) by Craig Venter, published in Science [PDF]

— Audio interview with Julian Savulescu about Venter's breakthrough [mp3]

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Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

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Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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