Submitted by: Sam Brunstein
Every so often there is a discovery that is little noted by the general public but that drastically and forever changes our future. In 1879, the invention of the electric incandescent light bulb (Edison at Menlo Park)) gave us control of the night. In 1947, the invention of the transistor (Shockley, Bardeen, and Brattain at Bell Labs) gave us the supercomputer, allowing us to create designs and conduct analyses inconceivable before then.
The incandescent light bulb and the transistor were game-changers. Our lives are dramatically different because of them. Yet, they created little excitement at the time they were invented.
It just happened again! Possibly the single most important invention in the entire history of Mankind.
Craig Venter and Hamilton Smith have created a single-celled bacterium whose genome they created from basic chemicals in the laboratory. The bacterium has no ancestors, Venter and Smith “wrote the code” for its DNA.
The best analogy is a “Frankenstein’s Monster,” because Venter and Smith had to start with the dead shell of a bacterium from which they had extracted the natural DNA. Recall that in Shelley’s fiction novel, Victor Frankenstein used a dead body stitched together with parts stolen from various sources and gave it life by exposing it to a lightning storm.
Venter and Smith removed the DNA from a single-celled bacterium, thus creating a Frankenstein framework. They then inserted the DNA they had created and set the bacterium to reproducing. When they had grown a reasonably-sized colony, they checked the DNA in members of the colony, and it was indeed the DNA that they had created from off the shelf chemicals.
So, Venter and Smith have not “created life.” They had to start with the framework of a dead cell and give it life by inserting designer DNA. But it is possible that, given enough time, someone (possible Venter and Smith) will create the shell as well as the genome and will then be able to claim that they created life from basic chemicals.
But, consider – using off-the shelf chemicals and the “body” of a dead microbe, Venter and Smith modified the design of the microbe and thus created a bacterium that breeds true and has never before been seen on earth.
Think of the possibilities – both for good and for evil.
A thorough discussion of the technology, the dangers, and the morality can be found at in the May 20th 2010 issue of the ECONOMIST:
A video of the scientists explaining their discovery can be found here: