What Is Life? Synthetic Biology Raises the Stakes

By Schott, Margaret E. | Science & Spirit, September-October 2007 | Go to article overview

What Is Life? Synthetic Biology Raises the Stakes


Schott, Margaret E., Science & Spirit


What is life? Although the question has been around for millennia, it has been revived again by a remarkable new development in synthetic biology, a field that tries to make "living" organisms in the laboratory.

In late June, a research team at the J. Craig Venter Institute in Maryland announced that they had "transplanted" an entire genome, or DNA code, from one bacterial cell into another. Once the success was reported in the journal Science, Venter and his colleagues declared that next they will try a much larger feat. They plan to repeat the process with a genome they will now produce synthetically--from "scratch"--in the laboratory, inching closer to the manipulation of "life" itself.

New technologies are making this possible. In the 1970s, geneticists discovered how to cut DNA into tiny pieces and read the "letters" of an organism's code. Later, technicians automated a process to stitch these small pieces (each about fifty-to-one-hundred units) into long "designer" DNA, helped along by reactive proteins called enzymes. The ambition of the Venter team, however, may break all records: They hope to synthesize a genome of over a half-million units long, which amounts to the entire DNA code of a living organism.

If it works, the experiment could revolutionize synthetic biology. The public has heard far more about genetic engineering, which involves the transfer of individual genes from one species to another. Synthetic biology goes much further: It would fabricate entire new genomes--which contain all the hereditary material--and insert them into the cellular body of organism, such as bacteria, taking over its "life." The goal is to give these microorganisms new powers to act as medicines, create new sources of energy, or eat up pollutants in the water or soil.

In a nutshell, synthetic biologists aim to design and build living "machines" using off-the-shelf chemicals. Scientists are already speaking of "booting up" organisms with a "tool kit" of standardized genetic parts called "biobricks." Now comes the great historical question that has stumped philosophers, theologians, and scientists for generations: Will these new "organisms" be alive?

Before the twentieth century, two philosophical views in biology dominated the "What is life?" debate. Proponents of the "mechanistic" view held that life can be explained by the same chemical principles that govern inanimate matter. "Vitalists," on the other hand, argued that living materials must possess non-physical factors or vital force like Aristotle's psyche, or life principle.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

What Is Life? Synthetic Biology Raises the Stakes
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.