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. …