well we are, but not by a world taken over by synthetic beings in the near future…
Science isn’t very fast, even though it often seems like it especially when we read media reports about ‘new’ scientific breakthroughs…
Last week, Genetic entrepreneur Craig Venter who established the genetic tech company the Venter group, published a paper in Science where they took a chemically synthesized genome and created a bacteria cell. They synthetically reproduced the genome of bacterium A, then they put this genome into bacterium B (different species) and the host bacterium B produced bacterium A cells.
Replicating synthetic DNA using bacteria or just enzymes from bacteria has been happening for a long time, its what is used in recombinant DNA technology, invented by Stanley Cohen and Herbert Boyer in the 1970’s. It is, for instance, how we can use DNA for crime cases, by replicating bits of real DNA synthetically. What is different in the Venter paper is that this technique used synthetic, man-made DNA to replace the natural DNA of a bacteria to form a new living cell, which is entirely ‘run (and can replicate itself)’ from this synthetic DNA, this is kind of cool.
And technologically this is an enormous step, the Venter group had to develop a new methodology and techniques for this to work, which again is a large-scale significant feat, but there is no new underpinning scientific discovery in all of this. Or more simply put its a small scientific step and a huge technological breakthrough.
So why is this distinction between science and technology important?
Science and technology are not the same thing (even though there is sometimes a fuzzy line between the two), we have forgotten this…
and the science bit, well it takes a lot of time.
Technology development can be fast – but science isn’t necessarily fast, in fact it is almost never fast… but it is science that underpins any technology, and technology is one outcome of science which has been built up by years of research, which has evolved over a long period of time.
This result has also sparked a debate about ethics ,‘playing god’ – eventually wiping out humanity á la ‘I am Legend’ – and even a warning from the Holy See. This genetic ethics debate is not exactly new, I remember having it as an undergraduate in the late 1980’s and it also arose when Dolly was created…
But are we in any kind of imminent danger of synthetic humans taking over the planet? I don’t think so – why? Because science takes a long time.
For instance think about how long has it taken to get to the point of making a bacteria? and Venter reproduced an already known species of bacteria, they didn’t create a super bacteria which can say jump tall buildings in a single bound and this is a really important point….
Well its taken years and pretty quick years by the normal scientific standard.
In 1868 DNA was first found by Friedrick Miescher who called it nuclein.
In the 1910’s X-ray diffraction was discovered by Max von Laue and the father and son team, William (not Billy) Lawrence Bragg.
In 1953 James Watson, Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin discovered the structure of DNA using X-ray diffraction techniques.
Incidentally the von Laue and Bragg’s were physicists. Who didn’t probably care (or know) about Miescher’s nuclein when they were watching atoms scattering X-rays from minerals.
The point of all of this – that science takes time. It also takes us on paths we CANNOT predict no matter how much we DO try to predict. So just because we can technologically make a known bacteria from reproducing and ‘watermarking’ an already existing bunch of DNA, doesn’t necessarily mean we are on a linear path to creating some kind of superhuman…
If you read Venter’s Science paper he says this:
No single cellular system has all of its genes understood in terms of their biological roles. Even in simple bacterial cells, do the chromosomes contain the entire genetic repertoire? If so, can a complete genetic system be reproduced by chemical synthesis starting with only the digitized DNA sequence contained in a computer?
So they answered the last question, but not the first one…. Meaning, they know they can reproduce a bacteria, by reproducing its DNA, but they still cannot explain at an intimate level the totality of gene function and again
No single cellular system has all of its genes understood in terms of their biological roles.
We are still a pretty long way from understanding this, even though we can now reproduce something that is already in existence, Venter’s bacteria A is a known species, we don’t know which bits of the genetic code to change to make say a hippo from a bacteria. And when is this going to happen? Who knows? And this is a scientific question that is likely going to take a long time to answer, and may even involve a scientific revolution on the order of Copernicus or quantum physics…
Technologically Venter has made a huge leap, but scientifically it really is just the next obvious step in some already known science, there is no new scientific discovery and the science bit, well it takes time…