While pundits worry about a future explosion in Artificial Intelligence, some are beginning to worry about the creation of artificial life-forms within the laboratory. These new life-forms could mutate into their own intelligent systems, creating new opportunities and causing problems for our existing ecosystem.
Unlike genetically modified organisms that use existing life-forms as a base, synthetic life promises to create entirely new life-forms from scratch without having to rely upon evolution.
Advocates of synthetic biology believe that the technology may be used to create better medical treatments, clean fuels, and reverse damage to our ecosystem, whereas skeptics are worried about new harmful pathogens released into the wild, particularly from the diverse and unregulated biohacking community. In addition, religious leaders caution of dangers inherent in playing “God”.
Government initiatives have studied bioethics and biosecurity issues surrounding synthetic life and have concluded that safeguards initiated by the genetically modified organism community are enough, but they based their assumptions on pretty early-stage research.
To date, “life from scratch” has not yet been created, but Dr Craig Venter and his team came close by fabricating a synthetic genome from an existing bacterium that went on to live and multiply on its own (the world’s first self-replicating species made in the lab). According to Venter, his team has made new software for the cell - “Software creates its own hardware”.
Venter believes that life is a DNA software system; if you change the software, you change the species.
Chromosomes are pieces of inert chemicals that act as software when inserted into a host cell (e.g. bacteria) and sequenced by the host into new life. Because chromosomes are essentially software, they can be patented. New life is likely to be owned by the companies that create it.
Assembling a genome used to require tremendous computing power for its design and many sequencing machines to output (produce) an error-free chromosome. Advances in computing power and production has rapidly brought down the time and cost required, while improving the quality of the result. We are not far off from having desktop-sized genomic printers.
Now that designing and sequencing genomes is a digital process, living organisms can be ‘sent’ through the Internet. In other words, genomic code can be beamed to a receiving sequencing device that can assemble the biological material in situ anywhere in the world (or, if need be, on other planets in space). Synthetic Genomics has built a commercially available, sequencing robot to do this. We can also use this process to take samples of materials on other planets and synthesise alien life forms in labs on earth.
This technology is being used today to beam vaccinations to production centres around the world. Novartis recently analysed an influenza outbreak in Asia and developed a synthetic genomic vaccination within 7 days, then produced enough vaccines in their American production distribution centres to stockpile it before the pandemic reached the US.
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