Is life special, so special that we cannot understand it, much less create it? Are living things endowed with some sort of special power, force or property that distinguishes the inorganic from the organic, the living from the dead?  Can life be nothing more than the precise interaction of physical stuff?

Scientists, theologians and philosophers have been wrangling over this issue for eons. For many, the wondrous nature of what permits something to be alive has been a mystery that science never, ever could penetrate. Life is sacred, special, ineffable and beyond human understanding. Except it isn’t.

What seemed to be an intractable puzzle, with significant religious overtones, has been solved. J Craig Venter, Ham Smith, Clyde Hutchinson, Daniel Gibson and a team of scientists at the Venter Institute in Rockville, Md., have made a new living bacterium from a set of genes they decoded, artificially combined and then stuck into the cored out remains of the bacterium of another species.  In other words, they created a living thing from man-made parts.  Or, in more important words, they created a novel lifeform from man-made parts.

Why did they do it? Well, in part to resolve the age-old debate that life is not reducible to the sum of any parts. But, they also know that the techniques of gene synthesis involved in this remarkable achievement hold out much promise for humankind.

Synthetic biology should permit scientists to make microbes that solve many of our most pressing problems. Building bacteria that digest oil and chemical pollution from leaks and spills or eat cholesterol and other dangerous substances that accumulate in our bodies is all to the good.

Still, this hugely powerful technology does need oversight. Bad guys making nasty bugs or those who are not very careful about where they release new living viruses or bacteria could pose serious risks to our health and environment. Venter and his group were careful to use tiny molecular changes to "watermark," or stamp their creation—an identification requirement that any scientist or company ought be required to utilize when using the techniques of synthetic biology.

It will take both national and international efforts, but these problems can be addressed. The deeper question: is the dignity of life imperiled by showing that human beings can create a novel living thing?  I think not. There are those who are enthralled by the idea that life is a riddle beyond solution. However, the value of life is not imperiled or cheapened by coming to understand how it works.


Arthur Caplan is Sidney D Caplan Professor and the Emmanuel and Robert Hart Director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. Before joining Penn in 1994, he taught at the University of Minnesota, the University of Pittsburgh and Columbia University. He is author or editor of 29 books, including The Penn Guide to Bioethics (Springer, 2009).


Image of DNA from Wikimedia Commons/brian0918

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.