Is 'Medical Revolution' Another Case of World's Scientists Playing God? the Creation of the First Living Cell Controlled Entirely by Synthetic DNA Is the Latest in a Succession of Medical Breakthroughs to Be Hailed as World-Changing While Prompting Dire Warnings about 'Playing God'. Are They Yet More False Alarms or Do They Signal a Real Emergency We Can't Afford to Ignore? Darren Devine Reports

Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), May 27, 2010 | Go to article overview

Is 'Medical Revolution' Another Case of World's Scientists Playing God? the Creation of the First Living Cell Controlled Entirely by Synthetic DNA Is the Latest in a Succession of Medical Breakthroughs to Be Hailed as World-Changing While Prompting Dire Warnings about 'Playing God'. Are They Yet More False Alarms or Do They Signal a Real Emergency We Can't Afford to Ignore? Darren Devine Reports


Byline: Darren Devine

WHEN controversy raged around genetically modified foods at the end of the 1990s, Prince Charles said they were an example of humans straying into realms that "belonged to God alone".

And when scientists in Scotland announced the birth of the world's first successfully cloned mammal, Dolly the sheep, in 1997, the advance again came with a warning: the technology must never be used on humans.

Almost a decade on, when scientists announced a revolutionary screening process for inherited diseases in embryos that could detect thousands more defects than previously possible, the predictable flurry of warnings followed.

Scientists were interfering with nature in a bid to aid parents on a quest to create flawless designer babies, went the warnings.

Two years ago, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) and its $10bn Large Hadron Collider near Geneva promised to one day unlock the secrets of the origins of the universe.

But a group of physicists and professors filed a lawsuit in the European Court of Human Rights, arguing the collider could cause micro black holes and start consuming the planet.

The latest scientific advance has seen American biologist Dr Craig Venter insert artificial DNA into bacteria to create the first living cell controlled entirely by synthetic DNA.

Accordingly, the ethics debate around cutting-edge research re-ignited.

After the experiment, the bacteria began to multiply - said to be a first in an experiment where an entire artificial genetic code, as opposed to individual pieces, had been used.

The scientists began by removing the biological blueprint of a bacterium called Mycoplasma capricolum, a bug found on our skin.

With the help of chemicals and laboratory machinery they created copies of this DNA which they placed into the empty shell of a different bacterium which had all its original genes removed.

Following the transfer of artificial DNA, the bacterium started reproducing itself - a sign it was alive.

Hailing it as a "third industrial revolution", those on the pro-science side of the debate say the potential benefits of the advance are massive and have the power to revolutionise everything from human health to climate change.

It's argued scientists could one day create "tailor-made" bacteria to help make drugs against diseases like cancer and malaria, slashing the cost of medications.

Thousands of bacteria could be engineered to filter air and soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or make engine fuel, reducing our reliance on fossil fuels like oil and coal.

They add that the bacteria he used in his experiment are not harmful to humans and warnings about them escaping or being stolen from a laboratory are misplaced.

And besides, scientists in labs everywhere deal with dangerous substances daily, from anthrax to smallpox, and tight safety regimes are in place to protect the public.

And while the development was always going to be greeted with excitement by the scientific community, even the normally ultra-conservative Catholic church has responded with cautious optimism.

Monsignor Rino Fisichella, director of the Pontifical Academy for Life, told an Italian television programme that if it was correctly used, it could be a positive development. But, he added, "only God can create life".

He said: "If it is used to promote the good, to treat pathologies, we can only be positive.

"If it turns out not to be ... used to respect the dignity of the person, then our judgement would change.

"We look at science with great interest.

"But we think above all about the meaning that must be given to life.

"We can only reach the conclusion that we need God, the origin of life."

In Wales, Rev Robin Morrison, the Bishops' advisor for church and society to the Church in Wales, was less reserved in his backing.

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Is 'Medical Revolution' Another Case of World's Scientists Playing God? the Creation of the First Living Cell Controlled Entirely by Synthetic DNA Is the Latest in a Succession of Medical Breakthroughs to Be Hailed as World-Changing While Prompting Dire Warnings about 'Playing God'. Are They Yet More False Alarms or Do They Signal a Real Emergency We Can't Afford to Ignore? Darren Devine Reports
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