In synthetic life, the can is as important as the Coke

A paper published online May 20 in Science touted the creation of the world’s first synthetic cell by researchers from the J. Craig Venter Institute who assembled a bacterial genome from scratch and used it to reprogram an existing organism (Page 5). The accomplishment is a major advance in the burgeoning field of synthetic biology, which tinkers with natural cells and organisms to answer basic research questions and solve environmental, medical and other problems. This rapidly expanding field brings with it significant ethical and practical issues. Glenn McGee of the Center for Practical Bioethics in Kansas City, Mo., and editor in chief of the American Journal of Bioethics recently talked with Laura Sanders about what the new accomplishment means — and what it doesn’t.  

GLENN MCGEE “I think it’s really dangerous for us to have to say over and over … ‘synthetic life is coming…’ when in fact that’s not what happened.” DK Blackwood

What conditions have to be met to show that life has been created? Have those conditions been met?

There’s two pieces…. One is, is it actually the case that the thing you produced can be described as being the thing that that genome makes? And there’s a really good reason why they’d say, “Well look, we have.” If the thing didn’t deconstruct and immediately form some [tumor] and go wild and crazy like in the movie The Fly and become some nutty combination, then you’re entitled to make the claim about whether or not the thing is sufficient, at least in the short term, to do all the things that this cell would do. 

On the other hand, there’s the other problem…. I don’t think you can claim this until you have demonstrated that you can produce the unbelievably complex cellular machinery…. This has been a barrier for more than a decade for this group. And they always say, “Well, we’re going to work on that stuff later,” but you just can’t. The number of issues involved not in just reprogramming the cell, but in producing ultimately what they have to do to produce synthetic life — you have to produce the whole enchilada.

That wouldn’t be true if I said I’d produced synthetic Coca-Cola. Nobody would complain that the can was taken from real Coke. If I say I’ve synthesized Coke, which would be a big deal, and someone says, “Well, no you didn’t, because you didn’t make the can,” they’d have to prove that the can was a really important part of Coke. Synthesizing a genome is a matter of making the claim that you’ve successfully produced a thing that you know is at least the Coke.

In this case, the can is half the battle. And they haven’t done the can yet. So I think it’s early.

Would you say that J. Craig Venter and his colleagues are exaggerating what they have done?

It’s a bit like if I invented the shoestring and said I was closer to Nike. I mean, yeah, maybe, a little. But it’s not up to me to quantify whether I am. And I don’t think that our ordinary peer review system is operating very effectively in terms of making sure that those claims are judged by the standards of cellular biology.

They do a very good job, but if it ain’t what it says it is, then let’s don’t call it that…. Don’t go calling stuff “synthetic” when there is no definition of synthetic life. And it’s up to you to be responsible about using that word carefully. Don’t go using it as a poster to attract attention to research that is still very much in progress.

Wow, I sound really down on this. It’s exciting research.

What are some of the ethical issues involved in this work?

I’m an ethicist and the fact that I work on this stuff is a function of the fact that there are real ethical issues here. The term “synthetic life” is almost as incendiary as the term “cloning.” And in some ways it’s more incendiary, because … a lot of this work has been done on weaponizable viruses, including work by this group, including even the initial work they did. People don’t have to have a whole lot of imagination to see that with every step forward here, there are enormous risks, including the publication of stuff.

From an ethics standpoint, I think it’s really dangerous for us to have to say over and over and over again in like 20 different news cycles over the past 10 years “artificial life is coming” and “synthetic life is coming and it’s going to be printed out on laser printers or produced from suitcase kits,” when in fact that’s not what happened. The landmark achievement is yet to occur.

It confuses people. We’ve got a public that’s already terrified of scientists. They hate intellectuals. The devil in just about every single movie these days is a scientist, whether it’s Iron Man or more direct stuff like Gattaca. The people fear this kind of science.

I’m talking about the public’s perception. And the public shouldn’t drive scientific inquiry. But it will if we scare the bejeebers out of them by using inflated language at every new step in synthetic life.