Creating New Lifeforms

So what’s all the fuss about? Says bioethicist Arthur Caplan, “Anything you made with a synthetic genome that didn’t exist in nature is a new life form.” At Venter’s request, Caplan helped organize an ethical review of the project. The review, led by bioethicist Mildred Cho from Stanford University, concluded that the project had adequate safeguards and could offer real benefits.

In an official statement, The Department of Energy said, “Our goal isn’t to make a new form of life. If this research can be said to create a new form of life, it will do so in the same way that scientists in thousands of laboratories routinely delete or insert genes into microbes, mice, or food crops in the process of learning how to build better medicines, safer food, and healthier products. This research is fundamentally no different.”

Most bioethicists agree (although many religious groups do not). It’s the safety issues that experts are most troubled by. For instance, if the technical details of this experiment are published, they could be used by terrorists to create biological weapons (just as they could be used by governments to either create or combat biological weapons). But this has always been the case, and preventing the publication of biological research will certainly stifle that research.

Another cause for concern, as this Washington Post story relates, is the “regulatory vacuum” that surrounds this area of research. Venter and Smith have gone out of their way to consider the security implications of this project, volunteering to not publish anything that could be used by terrorists, and going to great lengths to ensure that their new organism will be unable to survive outside a petri dish. The key word, though, is “voluntarily”. There are currently no rules to prevent less responsible scientists from conducting similar, less secure experiements that might accidentally release a new organism into, say, a ventilation shaft. And no rules exist that define what can be published.

As much as scientists dislike the prospect, the near future will likely see biologists subjected to the same kinds of security requirements that physicists and some computer scientists have long lived with.