HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Concordia University School of Law

Monday, August 20, 2007

Manufacturing and/or Defining Life

The Associated Press reports on the latest struggle for scientists: defining life.  The story states,

In suburban Washington this summer, prominent scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute, who were key players in mapping the human genome, switched DNA from one bacterium into another, changing its genetic identity. That put the world on notice that man's ability to manipulate life is dancing around the point of creation.

Now Venter is asking for a patent for a completely new bacteria that would be created by inserting genes into a hollowed-out cell of what once was a urinary tract bug. Venter doesn't view that as creating life, just "modifying life to come up with new life forms."
At least half a dozen other research teams around the world are going farther, trying to create life out of chemicals, mimicking the beginnings of life on Earth. They're somewhere from three to 10 years from success, they figure.

For them, and Venter, new man-made life forms mean new energy sources, environmental clean-up mechanisms and life-saving medicines. For others, such a breakthrough would mean understanding how life began on Earth by trying to recreate it. . . .

Many scientists familiar with these challenges of defining life say the answers won't be easy to find. "It's an important but ultimately frustrating question if one expects to come up with a nice clean shiny answer; it ain't going to happen," said Francis Collins, a prominent Christian scientist and director of the National Human Genome Research Institute.

That talk about life is going to get uncomfortable as dreams of creation, from Frankenstein's monster on, get closer to reality, said University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Art Caplan. "This issue of 'what is life' has been at the core of biology for about 400 years," Caplan said. He said it leads to the more theological questions about whether life is special and whether we are special. Later this century, the definition of life will be at the heart of a political and societal debate as heated and divisive as abortion and embryonic stem cell research, Caplan predicts.

Look for changes in religion, too.

"As knowledge has (been) added, religions have adapted," Venter said. "I don't see why this is any different. We're pushing the frontiers of knowledge, understanding life on this planet."
Venter dismisses suggestions that scientists are playing God as media sensationalism. And Collins, a scientist who talks at length about his faith, said he finds it interesting that the people who most often use the phrase "playing God" usually don't believe in God.

"Playing God" is a secular, not religious, term, said Ted Peters, a professor at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., and author of the book "Playing God." He said people who worry about that are really talking about tinkering with nature. "What Craig Venter is doing is an extremely complicated form of animal breeding," Peters said. "We're going to be changing the face of the planet no matter what. The question is do we want to do it responsibly or not?"

C. Ben Mitchell, a bioethicist connected with Trinity University, an evangelical Christian college in Illinois, worries about entrusting such monumental developments with scientists.
"Human history is enough; it is sufficient to remind us of the problem of hubris," Mitchell said. "It is at least a cautionary note, to caution us to be aware of unintended consequences.". . . .

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