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Artificial Life: Does Frankenstein Live in the Near Future?

Artificial life is a concept usually reserved for horror movies and the rich scenarios of science fiction novels. But just as art imitates life, so it can also imitate science and technology as every day researchers push the parameters of understanding the universe with new, mind-boggling discoveries.

In a research project aimed at creating a synthetic life form, scientists have reported a major step forward by creating an artificial genome and bringing a hollowed-out bacterium back to life. Headed by American geneticist and genome pioneer, Craig Venter, the hope is to learn how to engineer custom-made microbes. This landmark experiment has far reaching possibilities and complications and is highly controversial, to say the least.

Some twenty scientists were involved in this “defining moment in biology” for fifteen years at an estimated cost of $40 million. Venter firmly believes their important achievement is only the beginning of a new era marked by bacteria that will work for humanity’s good; churning out biofuels, manufacturing vaccines and reducing carbon footprints by designing algae that can soak up carbon monoxide from the atmosphere.

There are many who criticize this earth-shattering breakthrough. (Remember how Columbus was warned that he would fall off the flat surface of the earth if he dared to venture too far from home.)  Some claim that Venter is playing God and a few religious groups have condemned his work. One organization warned that these synthetic organisms could wreak environmental chaos or even be converted into biological weapons. Official bioethics advisers at the behest of President Obama are scheduled to report imminently on the implications of this monumental discovery.

President Obama had this to say about this very important issue:

“In its study, the Commission should consider the potential medical, environmental, security, and other benefits of this field of research, as well as any potential health, security or other risks. Further, the Commission should develop recommendations about any actions the federal government should take to ensure that America reaps the benefits of this developing field of science while identifying appropriate ethical boundaries and minimizing identified risks.”

In Venter’s own words: “This is the first synthetic cell that’s ever been made. This is the first self-replicating species that we have had on the planet whose parent is a computer… This becomes a very powerful tool for trying to design what we want biology to do.”

While members of the research team claimed they had taken only baby steps toward the goal of starting with a digital file and custom-making an organism, there seems no question that the concept of artificial life is very close to becoming a stunning reality.

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