Is the Synthetic Cell about Life?

By Gregory Kaebnick Is the “Synthetic Cell” about Life? A bioethicist explores the soul of Venter’s new life form and of his experiment © 2010 Francesco Francavilla / www.francescofrancavilla.com The announcement that the J. Craig Venter Institute has succeeded (finally) in synthesizing the genome of Mycoplasma mycoides—inserting it into a cell of Mycoplasma capricolum whose genome had been removed, and creating a fully functioning My

Jul 1, 2010
Gregory Kaebnick

Is the “Synthetic Cell” about Life?

A bioethicist explores the soul of Venter’s new life form and of his experiment

© 2010 Francesco Francavilla / www.francescofrancavilla.com

The announcement that the J. Craig Venter Institute has succeeded (finally) in synthesizing the genome of Mycoplasma mycoides—inserting it into a cell of Mycoplasma capricolum whose genome had been removed, and creating a fully functioning Mycoplasma mycoides—has been heralded as the moment that science finally took the magic out of life. Venter has said that the achievement has changed the definition of life. Bioethicist Art Caplan, a friend of mine, thinks it puts forever to rest the idea that living things are “endowed with some sort of special power, force, or property.” It is conclusive proof that life is nothing more than interacting chemicals.

The achievement is arguably a landmark moment in science, but it’s not a philosophical watershed.

First, as many have noted, the technical accomplishment is not quite what the JCVI press release claimed. It’s hard to see this as a synthetic species, or a synthetic organism, or a synthetic cell; it’s a synthetic genome of Mycoplasma mycoides, which is familiar enough. David Baltimore was closer to the truth when he told the New York Times that the researchers had not created life so much as mimicked it. It might be still more accurate to say that the researchers mimicked one part and borrowed the rest.

The explanation from the Venter camp is that the genome took over the cell, and since the genome is synthetic, therefore the cell is synthetic. But this assumes a strictly top-down control structure that some biologists now question. Why not say instead that the genome and the cell managed to work out their differences and collaborate, or even that the cell adopted the genome (and its identity)? Do we know enough to say which metaphor is most accurate?

For the sake of argument, let’s grant that JCVI created a synthetic cell. This is when we must address Caplan’s question. Does creating life in a lab demystify it?

In one sense, scientists have been “creating life” for a long time. Every time gametes are combined in a test tube to create embryos, life is created. In another sense, this is not “creating life,” it is only “creating a living organism,” which does not amount to the same thing as creating life unless you already believe that life is nothing more than interacting chemicals. If you believe life involves a special spiritual spark, the breath of God, the wisp of vapor that dementors almost sucked out of Sirius Black, well: creating an organism is not necessarily tantamount to creating that. That’s not just life, but Life, and nothing that happens in the lab will tell us much about it.

Consider, in keeping with the title of this new column, a thought experiment: would a person created through cloning have a soul? This question arose when the Clinton-era National Bioethics Advisory Commission was considering the ethics of cloning, and though it’s hard to believe in retrospect, there was actually a little chin-scratching about it. I submit that if there are such things as souls at all, then people created through cloning have them, too. By analogy, whatever special properties we find in microbial life generally will be found in the life of a synthesized microbe as well. In short, how an organism comes into being does not tell us how to understand the life that the organism possesses.

This is not to say that the JCVI experiment raises no interesting or difficult philosophical questions. Here’s one—though it’s a question that arises in some form with every biotechnology and human industry advance: how much do we want to remake the natural world? Synthetic biology by definition is about remaking the world. If we are careless, our newly created organisms might themselves remake the world in unintended ways. But if we manage them carefully, our engineered creatures may help rehabilitate a world that we’ve mindlessly plundered ever since we assembled ourselves from the primordial muck.

Gregory E. Kaebnick, PhD, is editor of the Hastings Center Report, a journal devoted to issues in bioethics, and a co-investigator in a Hastings Center research project on synthetic biology, funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. He recently testified before Congress in a hearing on synthetic biology.