Let there be life
- Published on 27 January 2011
- Written by Nicholas C. DiDonato
- Hits: 1309
Evolution seems to have done a pretty good job at creating versatile life forms. Through the power of genes and proteins, evolution has produced every known organism. But evolution has left many stones unturned—countless genes and proteins could exist, but don’t. Why not? For a long time most scientists suspected that this was because these genes and proteins could not sustain evolutionarily competitive life, but chemist Michael Hecht (Princeton University) has succeeded in creating artificial proteins that appear to do just that.
Before Hecht, the field of synthetic biology primarily centered on reordering the biological components of organisms. Now synthetic biologists will be able to go beyond nature and create their own biological components that perform certain functions. Already Hecht has designed proteins that prevented certain strains of bacteria from dying out. The sky is the limit for what could theoretically be done with synthetic biology: new proteins, new tissues, new organs, and, ultimately, a new genome, all of which would be synthesized in a laboratory. The genetic paths and combinations that evolution glossed over can now be brought to life.
This line of research naturally brings up the age-old question: “Should humans play God?” With the power to create proteins and genes that do not exist anywhere in nature, and with the potential to create an artificial genome, humans are poised to create life in their own image. Imagine a world where the most glaring difference between people is that some have a new biological system that grants them superhuman performance while others do not. Or one where organisms are created solely for the purpose of doing some grueling task. Perhaps most vexing, what if humans create another sentient species? These possibilities seem outlandish, but with technological advancements in synthetic biology they might someday be realized.
If the history of science is any indication, the urge of human curiosity is simply too strong to resist pushing the envelope. While some may regard many of the above possibilities as unethical, it may be a reality that simply has to be faced. Religions across the world may have to re-ask themselves, “Who is my neighbor?”
For more, on this ground-breaking discovery, see “Princeton scientists construct synthetic proteins that sustain life.”