BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific
BBCi NEWS   SPORT   WEATHER   WORLD SERVICE   A-Z INDEX     

BBC News World Edition
 You are in: Science/Nature  
News Front Page
Africa
Americas
Asia-Pacific
Europe
Middle East
South Asia
UK
Business
Entertainment
Science/Nature
Technology
Health
-------------
Talking Point
-------------
Country Profiles
In Depth
-------------
Programmes
-------------
BBC Sport
BBC Weather
SERVICES
-------------
EDITIONS
Friday, 10 December, 1999, 10:48 GMT
The mysteries of creation
Bac
M. genitalium: Bacterium with the smallest genome
Is the human being a creator or a creation? The distinction could become blurred if American scientists press ahead with an experiment to build a totally new living organism in the laboratory.

The Institute for Genomic Research (Tigr) in Maryland has studied the bacterium Mycoplasma genitalium and discovered the minimum number of genes that are required to keep it alive.


Do any of the scientists involved really have the wisdom to know how best to dictate the future evolution of life on this planet?

Jeremy Rifkin
They now propose to use that molecular information to build an organism from scratch - from the basic chemicals upwards. It is a daunting task and one for which the technology may not be available for many years to come.

But should it even be attempted? Should we be playing the role of creator?

Jeremy Rifkin from the Foundation on Economic Trends has no doubt that many people will reject the whole idea.

"Certainly, if ever there was a moment in time to stop and pause and reflect on the future use of technology, this experiment is it," he told the BBC. "This is a divide which takes us into a brave new world - a world in which scientists and companies can begin to create their own genesis. Do any of the scientists involved really have the wisdom to know how best to dictate the future evolution of life on this planet?"

Opportunity for debate

The Tigr researchers are aware that they may be trampling on what some might see as the mysteries of creation, and they have asked for an ethical review of their work.

 The BBC's Pallab Ghosh reports from Tigr in Maryland

"We've never pretended to have all of the answers and so we thought it was important before we went forward with this research to have an opportunity to get input from bioethicists, from religious leaders and the public," said Dr Claire Fraser, President of Tigr. "We want to discuss the pros and cons of this kind of work."

Dr Claire Fraser
Dr Claire Fraser: Tigr wants input from all
The pros are the possibility of building novel organisms designed for specific tasks. Modified bacteria are already used to pump out useful chemicals. All insulin-dependent diabetics inject themselves with the purified protein product from a bacterium containing a human gene.

Building from scratch would allow scientists to incorporate enhanced or novel functions in the cell - a designer bacterium that could eat radioactive waste or oil spills, for example.

But more important than all of this, such an experiment would tell us much more about how cells operate and why they go wrong. Of the 300 or so genes in Mycoplasma genitalium, about a third are unknown to science. We have no idea what function they support in the cell, which means there are clearly some fundamental biological processes that still elude us.

Evolution and wisdom

The Bishop of Oxford, the Right Reverend Richard Harries, said society should be cautious about proceeding with the experiment - but not fearful.

"This minimal genome is the product of billions of years of evolution and in it there is a great deal of wisdom enshrined, and I think we need to be very careful about the possible effects of manipulating this further."


"I challenge the terminology about 'creating life'. God has already done that"

Dr Donald Bruce
These would be the same destructive effects some people fear may come from the release of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) into the environment - effects that might not easily be controlled.

Nevertheless, the Bishop welcomed the step up in knowledge that came from the research.

Dr Donald Bruce, from the Society, Religion and Technology Project, which advises the Church of Scotland on just these sort of issues, believes Christians should not feel threatened by Tigr's experiment.

"This would not be 'creating life'," he told BBC News Online. "You'd just be copying a mechanism. The only definition of 'life' that comes from a reductionist agenda is a grossly impoverished one. I challenge the terminology about 'creating life'. God has already done that."

Dr Peter Little, a geneticist at Imperial College, London, said that although what was being proposed sounded fantastic people should not believe it was going to happen immediately.

"It's a bit like you have a very complicated recipe you have to cook and all you've been given are the ingredients with little idea of how to put them together," he said.

"So we know what life is made of but we still have to work out how to put it together - and that we can't do by just taking bottles of chemicals and shaking them up and mixing them together."

M. genitalium image by Frantz, Albay and Bott from University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Craig Venter from Tigr
"We're not as smart as we think we are"
Daniel McGee from Baylor University, Texas
There are benefits to come from novel organisms
BBC Radio's Today programme
Peter Little and Richard Harries discuss the ethical issues involved
See also:

10 Dec 99 | Science/Nature
10 Dec 99 | Science/Nature
25 Jan 99 | Anaheim 99
03 Dec 99 | Science/Nature
Internet links:


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more Science/Nature stories are at the foot of the page.


E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Science/Nature stories

© BBC ^^ Back to top

News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East |
South Asia | UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature |
Technology | Health | Talking Point | Country Profiles | In Depth |
Programmes