Creating life from scratch?
Extraordinary media fanfare accompanied recent ‘breakthroughs’ in genetic research. The extravagant claims of some news reports about the first DNA mapping of a human chromosome1,2 (Gene frenzy, Creation 22(2):9) were matched shortly afterward when another research milestone3 was heralded by headlines like ‘blueprint for creating artificial life is discovered’.4 Scientists were said to be on the threshold of creating life in the lab ‘from scratch’5 by synthesizing genes to form ‘a new type of life’.4
However, it turns out that geneticists are not about to create life, but that they have used molecular tools to ‘knock out’ hundreds of genes, one at a time, from the world’s simplest one-celled organisms — Mycoplasma bacteria. By seeing which knock-outs were lethal, the geneticists came up with an estimate of the minimum number of genes ‘essential’ for life.6 As the more discerning of the public commentators have also noted,7 this is a far cry from creating life from scratch.8
So why did this relatively unexciting research make such a splash? Because the researchers said they would pause to consult widely with religious leaders, bioethicists and the public on the rights and wrongs of genetically engineering a cell with the minimum number of genes necessary for life.8
The journal which contained the geneticists’ findings also carried a report from an ‘Ethics of Genomics Group’ whom the geneticists had earlier approached.9 While this group said that the proposed research could not be prohibited by ‘legitimate religious considerations’, they criticised the assumption that life could be understood merely in terms of genes.
Ironically, one factor in this criticism was that ‘a genetic definition of when life begins would have implications for the abortion debate.’ (As a newly-formed human embryo carries a complete complement of human genes, a genetic definition of life would imply that killing a human embryo means taking a human life — an issue the ethics committee seemed to evade somewhat.)10
Given the huge international scientific focus on identifying the structure and function of genes,11,12,13 vastly more effort would be required to artificially copy (i.e. re-create or ‘reverse engineer’) genes and their cell ‘home’ to the point where a complete living and reproducing organism exists, even if it only matches the very simplest bacterium in the world today. (Note also, that geneticists would merely be copying the existing design of life — not coming up with a new design ‘from scratch’.)
If (or when) ultimately man does synthesize life, will it support the notion of evolution? On the contrary — it would show that for life to arise from non-life, someone has to create it, i.e. lots of intelligence, planning, skill and creative effort are necessary.
References and notes
- Nature, December 2, 1999, pp. 489–495.
- The Daily Telegraph (UK), December 2, 1999, p. 32.
- Science, December 10, 1999, pp. 2165–2169.
- The Independent (UK), December 10, 1999, p. 5.
- The Cincinnati Enquirer, December 15, 1999, p. E4.
- The Minimum Genome Project researchers estimated that of the 517 genes belonging to the bacterium Mycoplasma genitalium, only 265 to 350 genes were essential for the organism’s survival in their laboratory.
- Canberra Times, December 18, 1999, p. B12.
- To create a new organism based on minimum genes, scientists must (i) determine which genes are the minimal set necessary to survive and reproduce, (ii) construct these genes, and (iii) create the other components of an organism (e.g. a ‘cell’ in which the genes can ‘reside’, plus the necessary machinery to ‘interpret’ the information encoded in the genes and function accordingly).
- Science, December 10, 1999, pp. 2087–2090.
- There is clear biblical evidence that the unborn is human (Genesis 25:21–22, Psalm 139:13–16, Jeremiah 1:5, Luke 1:41–44). Of course, a pre-born human is not just genes, either.
- E.g. the human gene report (Ref. 1) lists 217 authors; the groups who were first to map complete plant chromosomes (Ref. 12 and Ref. 13) list 37 and 230 authors respectively.
- Nature, December 16, 1999, pp. 761–768.
- Nature, December 16, 1999, pp. 769–777.