Writing the Software of Life

August 29, 2012 § 1 Comment

In May 2010, the J. Craig Venter Institute developed the first self-replicating cell controlled by synthetic DNA. In short, man-made DNA was injected into a bacterial cell, allowing the scientists to control the function of the newly-created cell. This reproducing cell provides a powerful set of tools for scientists: it could shorten the process of developing vaccines for viruses such as the flu or common cold, as well as provide vaccines for diseases that rapidly evolve like HIV; it could also be used to clean polluted water or create biofuels; however, it could also be used to create biological weapons. The ramifications of human-directed life in a lab provide a launch pad for numerous science fiction stories.

Many science fiction pieces focus on the unforeseen consequences of technological advances or scientific discoveries – such as the usage of the ‘Automatic Sequence Computer’ in Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Nine Billion Names of God.” In this case, man-made cells are likely to be more fragile than natural cells. These synthetic cells could escape from a lab and infect or even extinguish natural life forms with their synthetic DNA. Because there is still limited understanding of life at the genetic level, there is a high potential for uncontrolled replication, or the creation of a cell that inadvertently wipes out the human population.

In another extreme, a science fiction story could be written on an ‘experiment gone wrong’ that altered earth’s atmosphere. The J. Craig Venter Institute is in the process of developing new strains of algae to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and make new hydrocarbons for gas and diesel fuel. What if a cell was introduced into the ocean with the hopes of altering algae in this way, but ended up destroying algae? Because algae is a key source of oxygen, earth’s atmosphere would be completely transformed and threaten all living organisms. Overall, the unknown implications of being able to write genetic code and design cell functions make this discovery an extremely appealing topic for a science fiction story.

If you’re interested in learning more about the discovery of this self-replicating cell, the following link to a Ted talk provides some insight into the discovery process and current projects for the cell:

http://www.ted.com/talks/craig_venter_unveils_synthetic_life.html.

-Lexi Zarecky

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