Playing God

The creation of the first artificial dna gives rise to endless possibilities

Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

the world's first synthetic deoxyribonucleic acid or dna -- the molecules that form the blueprint of life -- has been made. This means that the first artificial organism could be born within two years. It also raises hopes of the possibility of redesigning whole new species, including humankind.

Researchers at the University of Texas -- who created the dna -- have mapped out the exact way it will be configured to create synthetic organism one ( so 1), the microbe destined to be the world's first man-made creature. "We are synthesising dna to create the first synthetic organism," said Professor Glen Evans, director of the university's genome science and technology centre. " so 1 will have no specific function but once it is alive we can customise it. We can go back to the computer and change a gene and create other new life forms by pressing a button."

Next on the researchers' agenda is the creation of a series of designer bugs, with super-efficient mechanisms for infecting target tissues such as cancer tumours -- and then killing them. Some would infect the human stomach to produce vitamin C . But, according to critics, this could lead to the creation of a microbe master race with greater ability to infect humans and wildlife.

The researchers' success lies in having found a way to create long chains of dna . Such chains are made up of four types of molecules which join up in two-somes known as 'base pairs'. The base pairs then link to form a ladder that twists into the famous dna double helix. In nature, one chain of dna can contain hundreds of thousands of base pairs. Until now, however, scientists have found it impossible to join together more than 100.

The team led by Evans has been successful in exceeding this limit. They have used a technique that first creates short chains of dna and then strings them along in a controllable way. In this manner, the scientists are on the verge of creating chains consisting of 100,000 pairs -- which are sufficient to form the basis for simple forms of life.

The design for so 1 is based on analyses of the genes of other small bacteria. Genes are the functional units of dna, each one being responsible for creating a protein essential to processes such as respiration.

The researchers plan to copy the vital genes from each bacterium, select the best and join them together. All dna also contain 'junk genes' with no function but the researchers plan to omit these -- possibly making so 1 the most efficient organism that has lived.

The work to create so 1 is complex but the test of success will be simple. Can so 1 feed and reproduce? If so, then Evans will indeed be celebrating new life. His critics might regard such an event differently.

Policy and campaigns director of Friends of the Earth Tony Juniper said the bugs could present a serious threat to human health and the environment. He said: "Scientists have already unleashed genetically modified organisms and we are now seeing the damage they can do. Playing God by creating entirely new life forms could have very serious consequences which should be publicly and fully debated."

Evans believes that man will one day be successful in creating complex life forms. For now, however, the initial benefit could be simpler -- the end of the vitamin pill. "Humans need but cannot make vitamin C because we lack one particular enzyme," he said. "If we put that enzyme into one of our artificial organisms and drink it, the bug will live in our guts making vitamin C for ever."

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.