Saturday, November 27, 2010

US 'artificial life' to take middle ground

US "artificial life" report to take middle ground
by Michael Cook | Nov 25, 2010 |

tags: artificial life, synthetic life

The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues will soon finish a report on "synthetic life" commissioned by President Obama earlier this year. The report was prompted by scientific entrepreneur Craig J. Venter's announcement that his team had created an artificial genome. The commission was asked to study the ethical and safety aspects of this development. The report is due on December 15.

The chair, Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, gave The Scientist a preview of the recommendations:

On oversight:

"We're recommending a middle ground between what you might call the proactive view 'let science rip' and the very cautious view, which says don't let science move forward until you have mitigated all the risks. We think that prudent vigilance is the Aristotelian mean between those two extremes and it requires ongoing risk analysis, rather than stop science until you know all the potential risks in the future."

On synthetic biology hype and hysteria:

"We're recommending that an independent organization do for synthetic biology and biotechnology what does for politics, which is to a fact check, be an online resource for the public and journalists that you can check the veracity of certain claims or criticisms of new discoveries. So you might imagine a new online site called"

On safeguards:

"We're likely to recommend that new organisms when they're created should be marked or branded in some manner to be able to monitor development in synthetic biology. And there are many possible ways of doing this. We were given examples of suicide genes or other types of self-destruction triggers that can be engineered into organisms in order to place a limit on their lifespan."

On do-it-yourselfers:

"The 'do-it-yourselfers' are individuals who work not in institutional settings. Do-it-yourself biology is an important and exciting part of this field and it showcases how science can engage people across our society who don't have university or industrial affiliations. At the same time, the global expansion of do-it-yourself bio raises some concerns about safety and security."

The Scientist, Nov 19


  1. The article raises more questions than answers. On the safeguard excerpt, what if one day a synthetic human being is created one day. Wouldn’t putting a self-destruction trigger into the human genome,even when the organism is synthetic, create a moral and ethic dilemma? On the do-it-yourselfers excerpt, how is the presidential commission going to address the safety and security concerns posed by individuals who do not work in a institutional setting? in biotechnology, some facts are highly controversial in terms of reaching a consensus among the scientific community. On synthetic biology hype and hysteria excerpt, if there will be a, to what extent do we know the validity of those facts and whether they are biased or not. For example, the answers to the question where does life begins are different depending on whom one asks. Special interest groups advocating for stem cell research would give you one answer while the Catholic Church gives you another. On the oversight excerpt, I wish the recommendations could be more specific. In what situations do we let science move forward and in what situations should we limit the potential risks and take extreme precautions? A case by case study would generate a gray area as in the rest of topics in bioethics.

    ~Handi Wu

  2. I definitely agree with Handi's post, in that all discussed issues raise, in themselves, ethical dilemmas- simply because the materials in this kind of bio research setting are already extremely controversial as it is. However, I think a report like this could clarify what really is going on in this type of research setting, and might be able to allay public misconceptions on the emerging field of biotechnology. It might take some of the mystery out of the field, and could also force researchers to refocus their work to ensure that it follows an ethical path. When you are forced to sit down and assess what you're doing, you can look at things objectively and map out a plan for where you are and where you're going- and i think this type of formal insight is especially crucial when the field of biotech is moving at the incredible pace we're seeing.

  3. I think it is fascinating that we are at this level of scientific discovery because it really makes us question what life is and will help redefine our ethical discussions.

    I think one ethical consideration that must be made is an individuals right to autonomy. Some could say that by having the ability to artificially create a human down to every base pair in the genome is manipulative to the extent that it limits an individuals autonomy. In fact, some would say that it is ethically wrong for humans to, for lack of a better term, play the role of God and have the control over what a human becomes.

    However, some people might say that manipulating only a few base pairs, say in the case of eliminating the risk that a human has Tay Sachs, is morally acceptable. Why is this and can we draw a line?

    I feel that eliminating ones risk from a life of suffering is the right thing to do becuase it appeals to ethical principles of non-maleficence. We should be obligated to provide people with the opportunity to live healthy, fruitful lives. However, when it comes artificially manipulating the entire genome I feel that it would alter too many components of the individual, including personality and behavior. Although some would agree with this claim, others could say that a person's disease/disability defines who they are. Some could argue that having a disease or disability, no matter how challenging it has been to live with, has provided them with rich experiences that they would not have received if they lived a healthy, "normal" life.

    I think there is too much uncertainty at this point to make an ethically responsible decision regarding the creation of an artificial genome. However, I think this debate is a healthy discussion to have in helping us define our individuality and what it means to be a human.

    -Andrew Schiff

  4. I believe artificial life is something the world is not yet ready for but the realms of biology and genetics are constantly pushing towards this. The implications of developing artificial life are beyond any realm of our current comprehension. Once we know how to create artificial life, what are we going to do with it? How is it going to be controlled? How will regulations be enforced? What lives will individuals created artificially lead? The development of artificial life clearly has the ability to very wrong because there are so many different possibilities one must explore, possibilities that may be unimaginable until it is too late. Therefore I think that scientists should think about benefits/risks to mankind of this before they take it any further.

  5. My biggest issue with this is the new ethical dilemmas we are creating if we agree to this. Where do we draw a line when it comes to choosing/playing with genomes? I'm an advocate for "weeding out" certain fatal diseases when using IVF, as it it is in accordance with the principle of beneficence and minimized risks. However I do question the morality behind creating/controlling an entire genome. What is the use? The safety concerns are equally worrisome; placing a "suicide gene" into the genome in an attempt to control its lifespan sounds like a bad plan from some science movie.

    What is the benefit in creating a whole new genome? Apart from proving our ability to do it..Certainly it can offer new information but the idea that we can create a person brings a feeling of unease. This feeling could be due to the novelty of this idea but unless there are reasons to do this, that will benefit society or at least, not cause any harm, then I do not see the point.

  6. The development of artificial life poses both benefits and considerable risks. Artificial life can be the solution to medical, environmental, and humanitarian problems. By cherry-picking the genes to be expressed in an organism, it is feasible to create bacteria-like cells that will cost-efficiently produce drugs and vaccines, or convert pollution to clean water. However, it is equally feasible to create new viruses that would be deadlier that any natural virus. In general, introduction of new species into an ecosystem can throw it out of balance and annihilate competing species. If precautions guarding the labs in which these new organisms are developed are insufficient, then the organisms can leak into the surrounding environment and cause serious problems. Additionally, synthetic organisms can become a deadly weapon in the hands of the military. Considering the state of the world right now, I don’t think we are ready for a weapon of that magnitude. As research in synthetic life continues, we must consider how stringent the security surrounding these labs and the people who work there ought to be.

  7. The creation of an artificial genome which is equivalent to making a new life form is both terrifying and exciting at the same time. In addition, the issue is also fraught with ethical problems. By virtue of novelty, any new artificial life form will be unpredictable. One can imagine a whole host of disaster situations or favorable applications of a human-made genome. For one thing, that new life form could probably out-compete native organisms and disrupt natural ecosystems in catastrophic ways. But it is also possible that a new genome could have gene products or proteins that may prove beneficial. A novel life form could make proteins that have therapeutic value in medicine or commercial value in some market applications. The real challenge for the scientists who are working on this artificial genome is how to balance the advance of science while being mindful of he potential dangers that can be engendered by this type of research. In terms of ethics, the moral status of any new life form would be hotly debated. Will the interests of human life supersede the interests of this new life form? Also to consider is what happens as this new life begins to evolve along Darwinian principles and perhaps finds a way to incorporate itself into existing genomes. These are all vexing ethical questions that have to be answered sooner or later.

    Jill Grodman

  8. I think that the research involved in artificial life must be carefully monitored and controlled so that we can pursue research in the safest way possible. There were several interesting points discussed in this article. First off, in considering 'oversight' the article does not mention how scientists would objectively be able to decide when they have reached the border between safe science and dangerous research. Wouldn't it be easy for an ambitious researcher to lose sight of what is ethical without having some check on their practices? In regards to the 'self-destruct' mechanism as a safeguard, I definitely think that is questionable in some situations. Suppose the artificial life research took a turn towards recreating human life wouldn't there be further ethical implications? Would the same ethical rights that humans have apply to these forms of artificial life as well? I am also concerned about the safety issues associated with the concept of 'do-it-yourselfers' that the article seems to gloss over. The article states that it raises 'some concerns' to have independent researchers. I think however that independent researchers, especially in such a controversial field, are dangerous because they are in uncharted waters without supervision or particular purpose to their work.