Saturday, May 22, 2010

Scientists create what they call the world's first synthetic life form - Science must continue to innovate

With the J Craig Venter Institute successfully creating the worlds first artificial organism a bacterium that has at its core a computer-generated synthetic genome we now stand at a special place in human history. The possibilities are endless. With this technology we can literally create new organisms for the benefit of mankind. This could include microbes that help us produce medicines, clean up atmosphere by breaking down toxic green house gases, wean us off our dependence on non-renewable hydrocarbons by producing biofuels, or even solve the problem of hunger by converting wastelands into fertile farmlands. The only thing that restricts us is our imagination. Hence, it is disappointing that some people have chosen to criticise this pathbreaking technology. Throughout history, scientific innovations and discoveries have been subject to criticism from conservatives. It is primarily the fear of the unknown, combined with the apprehension of contravening religious edicts, that fuels this sentiment.

This is not to say that logical concerns regarding scientific inventions should be ignored. Appropriate safeguards should be implemented while adopting the latest technology. However, fear of the unknown shouldn't impede scientific progress. Had it not been for constant scientific innovations throughout history, the world today would not have been able to support six billion people living in complex community systems. Science and technology have improved our lives in more ways than we can imagine. Therefore, notwithstanding rational questions regarding the implications and usage of new technology, lets not place bans on scientific innovation. The technology to create synthetic organisms is indeed a landmark achievement.
It has created a monster

Craig Venters creation of the first synthetic cell may indeed be pathbreaking in the field of genetic engineering. But it also poses a threat to the future of human civilisation. Mans tinkering with nature through unbridled scientific experiments could bring catastrophe. Society cannot stand by while the Victor Frankensteins of the world are let loose in a mad competition to create better monsters. The first service to preserve a healthy balance of life on earth and to ensure harmony with nature is to recognise the existence of ethical and legal issues in all kinds of genetic research. The way genetic engineering has mushroomed in various universities or private labs funded by corporates with commercial interests or governments with national security interests is a cause for concern. We cannot let boardrooms of corporates or war rooms of militaries dictate terms and conditions for scientific research. Venter has already applied for patents on more than 300 genes, raising issues related to intellectual property rights to the building blocks of life.

A CIA report has warned about this kind of technology enabling the creation of diseases currently unknown to mankind. The danger of bioterrorism,where organisations like al-Qaeda acquire or fund research on such viruses, cannot be ruled out.Lets not create scope for new diseases like the Chimera virus in Mission Impossible-II. The inability of the international community to create a consensus on fighting global warming and climate change doesnt create confidence in its capacity to handle new global threats. Unintended consequences will surely follow if we unleash new life forms on the planet. Its time to take a step back,and desist from going where science ought never to have gone.

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