Artificial Life

‘Genome man to create new life.’ BBC News, 2002

‘Scientists in the United States are to press ahead with plans to create a new lifeform in the laboratory. Dr Craig Venter - the man behind the privately funded human genome sequence - and Dr Hamilton Smith - a Nobel-Prize-winning geneticist - want to create a man-made microbe with the minimum number of genes needed to sustain life. The project has received $3m from the Office of Science at the Department of Energy in the US and preliminary work is already under way. If successful, this experiment, the scientists claim, will be the first step to developing new cost-effective energy sources. This could mean artificial bugs engineered to pump out vast quantities of hydrogen to power cleaner cars. In recent years, scientists have improved their ability to manufacture to order long chains of DNA - the so-called "code of life" - in the laboratory. This skill makes it theoretically possible to synthesise the genetic material necessary to drive and maintain a very simple organism - a small bacterium. Dr Venter first proposed the idea of creating an artificial bug in the lab in 1999. It raised a number of ethical and safety issues and any attempt to create the lifeform was then put on hold while these were debated. Of particular concern is the potential of this type of technology to be used to develop new biological weapons. Publishing only limited details about the work could ease worries. There is also concern about the danger to human health from a man-made organism escaping into the environment. However, the scientists say they would exclude certain genes to make the new microbe safe. The organism would be rendered incapable of infecting humans and would die if it ever escaped its petri dish, they say.’ BBC News, 2002

‘GM experiments to create new life forms could take place in the UK without public debate, GeneWatch UK warns. Disturbing new research in the USA could take place in the UK under current regulations without any public debate about whether the creation of new life forms should be allowed at all. Completely new organisms are to be created from scratch by US scientist, Craig Venter. Funded by the US Government, the experiments herald a new departure in the use of genetic technologies. The research plans to reduce the number of genes in a bacteria normally found in the genital tract to the minimum required for life. Then the organism will be further manipulated to have different functions. In the UK, the GM organisms could be required to be produced under strict containment and handled as if they were dangerous pathogens, but it is not possible to question whether they the organisms should be created or not, even though the artificial development of new species raises important social, ethical, ecological and safety issues.’ Genewatch 2002

‘US scientists have produced a wholly artificial virus using a method they claim could lead to new lifeforms. These synthetic organisms - on the scale of bacteria - could be engineered to produce clean energy or mop up pollution, the researchers say. It is only the second time a virus has been constructed from scratch in the lab, but the new effort is said to produce substantially quicker results. The work…was conducted at the Institute of Biological Energy Alternatives in Rockville, Maryland, by Dr Craig Venter and colleagues. Dr Venter was the man who led the private effort to decode the human genome. He told a news conference on Thursday that being able to make a synthetic virus was just the start of an exercise that would lead to completely artificial or engineered bacteria. "It's an interim step. Now we have the enabling technology to take us to these next exciting frontiers," Dr Venter said. For now, "this is basic science at the most basic level with lots of unknowns". But he added: "The ability to construct synthetic genomes may lead to extraordinary advances in our ability to engineer micro-organisms for many vital energy and environmental purposes". To make the synthetic virus, Dr Venter's team assembled and spliced together segments of DNA. The newly constructed microbe is a replica of the phiX virus, which occurs naturally and infects bacteria - not humans. Its genome consists of 5,386 units - or base pairs - of DNA arranged in a small circle. Other researchers had previously synthesised the poliovirus, which is slightly bigger, employing enzymes usually found in cells. But this effort took years to achieve and produced viruses with defects in their code. In an effort to improve the speed and accuracy of virus building, Dr Venter and colleagues adapted a frequently used technique in genomic science called the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) which is used to copy DNA segments. The researchers assembled the phiX genome from oligonucleotides - small pieces of single-stranded DNA - and then combined these into the double stands of the complete genome using their new polymerase cycle assembly (PCA) method. The whole process of building the synthetic phiX took just 14 days. The artificial bacteriophage behaves just like the "natural" one. It has the ability to infect and kill bacterial cells and is indistinguishable from its counterpart. The scientists say the ability to quickly and accurately synthesise long segments of DNA could help them understand the function of particular genes, and may be a stepping stone to manipulating more complex organisms.’  BBC, 2003

Whether you believe in God or not,

the fact that He means LOVE must

come as something of a comfort –

just the sort of God you would choose

to appoint in charge of the Universe -

its principles, inspirations, aspirations.

And you can take Him or leave Him,

that’s freedom for you, eh, in action -

but these wee gods, who chose them?

Who elected them - earth-gods, imposters.

We’ve seen the damage one virus can do -

even nano-Gods could bring down creation;

that’s why we like the careful God we’ve got,

thanks, His cautious experimentation methods -

maybe in four billion years you’ll be on the way

to understanding – actually, no, omniscience

it turns out, is patented; a one and only thing,

safe in the pure source of life being only love.

‘The moment was vintage Craig Venter: Biology's bad boy stood before a crowd of reporters in Washington, D.C., trumpeting his latest achievement, with a beaming Spencer Abraham, the U.S. Secretary of Energy, by his side. Venter announced he had assembled a virus - a harmless, bacteria-infecting virus - from scratch, in his lab, in two weeks flat. The only other lab to attempt such a feat had taken three years. What was more, he went on, this was no mere test-tube sport. It was a small but important step in a much larger quest. Venter, in case you don't remember, is the renegade scientist who in 1998 challenged the U.S. government in a race to sequence the human genome - and fought his giant rival to a history-making tie. He's the same guy who was later ousted by the genomics company he had founded after failing to deliver on outsized promises. Now he has shifted to what may be the ultimate scientific ambition: To create new forms of life. Piecing together the virus was just a dry run. Venter plans to use commercially available snippets of DNA to assemble the smallest and simplest of genomes, a lab-made thread of just 300 genes, and insert it into a bacterium that has been stripped of its own genetic code. Then he'll hold his breath and see whether the tiny microbe "boots up" and starts moving, metabolizing, and multiplying, all according to Venter's reductionist version of life's playbook. If the plan succeeds, a new creature will have entered the world. And Venter will have taken a bold, juicy bite of what some see as the forbidden fruit.’ Meredith Wadman, Fortune, 2004

Makin an artificial beastie

‘Weel, am a fir Science,

which is just findin oot aboot me

an a ma works,

but a dinnae really like the soon

o this wee beastie -

it’s no natural like.

A kent whit a wiz daen,

bein a deity an a -

ken, Goad -

guddlin aroon wi thon gas

an darkness and stars

an dust an waa-ter an a;

but am no just sae sure aboot yoos

daen the auld Goad thung -

yiz hiv nae done affa weel

wi a the braw things Creation’s

made in the world already -

an am no sure if a feel tha reassured

by thon petri dish stuff –

if am no mistaken wiz that no hoo

yin o ma favourites o yir inventions

happened; aye, Fleming - Alex tae me, 

did he no hae a wee accident -

imagine if rather than penicillin

he’d goan intae his lab an foon

a wee crawlin-aboot beastie

wi blue herr an pink teeth,

daen a wee bit jig – wid it be

yin o mine? Am no just sure,

though a suppose ony life

ultimately uses ma coapyright,

ma basic mechanism - that ‘Chizam,

Ta-da’ - ma auld sparkly magic.’

‘Currently, he says, men can create machines such as the ones negotiating his corridors with the calculating powers of insects. But with computer power doubling every year, or year and a half, robots will evolve from insects to animals to human intelligence - at breakneck speed. By around 2050, predicts Hans Moravec, a computer costing only a few hundred pounds will have the capacity of the human mind. After that, it will start exceeding it. It may sound like pure science fiction, but it is serious academic stuff. Sometimes we non-scientists glimpse the details of it. The American computer chip maker Gordon Moore enunciated what is now known as Moore's Law 30 years ago, when he noticed that the power and pace of computing was doubling every 18 months or so. But the roboteer Hans Moravec thinks the evolving change we are now experiencing in computing has in fact been going for centuries in human evolution. When machines have more intelligence than men, they will be able to do the things we do better and faster than we do.’ Peter Day, BBC, 2000

‘One man who is set on trying to unfold the complexity of life, and how we are made up and came to be in order to understand our future, is Craig Venter. He led the private effort to sequence the human genome - the genetic code that creates life. His next big challenge is to create living, artificial organisms from a kit of genes, and says he is well on his way. He believes an artificial single cell organism is possible in two years. "We sequenced 130 genomes this year. The rate of reading the genetic code has changed but we have barely scratched the surface," he told the conference…To Dr Venter, these genes are the design components of evolution, the "software that builds its own hardware But evolution has only given us so many answers. We need new methods to understand the biology out there. Only by trying to build it will we truly understand it," he says. But the aims of his mission are even wider than that. "We are optimistic we will have a new form of artificial life based on our knowledge of these existing genomes that provides knowledge to go forward to tackle environmental problems," he says. "We know lots of different pathways and thousands of organisms that live off carbon dioxide and can catch that back from the atmosphere." The captured carbon can then be converted to biopolymers and other new products, he believes. There are lots of pathways that can be engineered to convert methane into useful products, too. Future engineered species could be a source of food, energy, and could help regenerate damaged environments. To Dr Venter, his venture is crucial to understanding our future. He dismisses fears that if one can create artificial life once the code has been written, then this will open a "Pandora's Box" for those who want to play God or take us to an era of bioterror. "Almost every major religion requires humans to try to improve society," he says. One certainty in an uncertain world is clear to Professor Rees: "Whatever happens in this uniquely crucial century will resonate in the remote future and perhaps far beyond the Earth”.’ BBC, 2005

It’s life, Jim…

Who let the gene genie out of the bottle?

It’s life, Jim... but not as we know it!

It’s aaaaallllive!

The stuff of Science Fiction, playing God, and so on -

(and let’s bet there already exists on Earth the answer

to all our fuel needs, without pollution) - making new

species, when even Nature has the odd strange hiccup,

after four billennia of practice, experiment – lemings,

dodos, lady preying mantises; do we need sensational

superbugs, cyber-bugs, robo-bugs, man-made microbes -

let’s bet in the disappearing rainforests one already exists

to fire our cars, heating, combined with benign technology -

take our state-of-the-art ecological Highland heating system,

which sends copper coils into the earth, from soil’s warm

heart sucks enough heat to be compressed into hot tubes -

water; even in winter, accessing underblankets of frost -

how amazing, here right now, but almost secret to most

people, unknown, rarely mentioned during debate on Earth’s

ill health. To harness even a lightbulb-worth of life’s energy

and drive; well, are these the same people guaranteeing us

that genetically modified crops will never skip the fence -

dust pollen on bees. Such peril in the divide between those

who understand, and the vast majority who do not, leaving

only intuition, superstition; yet powerful enough to challenge

recklessness, trusting not all heart messages are wrong, naive.

Like witches, magicians, scientists coiling DNA

Like witches, magicians, scientists coiling

DNA - pulling it out with a raised wand -

crocheting, stringing, muttering incantations;

conjuring life from the alchemist’s cauldron -

the genetic book of spells, illuminated scripts

in the arcane four-letter language – A,C,G,T;

manipulated, broken, re-formed in some imitation

of the divine process. And what angels or demons

might stand about such gates - what horn or trumpet

sound; what battles to make this new thing a creature

of light, or dark menace gleefully infiltrating Earth -

as corruption of life, lurching, perverted; utterly sick.


Mycoplasma genitalium

‘A panel of ethicists and religious leaders - brought together at Dr Venter's request - have been discussing the ethical implications of creating artificial life for a number of years. They concluded that if the ultimate goal was to benefit mankind and if all appropriate safeguards were followed, the project could be regarded as ethical. The research will use a single-celled organism called Mycoplasma genitalium as a "template" for the new lifeform. M. genitalium, which is normally found in the human genital tract and lungs, has the smallest known genome - just 517 genes. But work on the microbe has shown just 265 to 350 of these genes are essential for it to live. Drs Venter and Smith will do their research at the Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives. Dr Venter said: "With fossil fuel consumption continuing to rise and with it serious environmental damage to our planet, it is imperative that we explore alternative ideas to abate this situation." The goal is to find cost-effective and efficient biological energy sources…The first step though is making an artificial chromosome - the structure into which the scientists would pack their synthetic genome. The research team plan to remove all of the M. genitalium bacterium's own genetic material and replace it with the man-made chromosome. This new chromosome will contain about 300 genes. If the experiment works then the new cell will be able to divide and produce a new generation of cells. Ultimately, the research could lead on to a fully artificial lifeform built from scratch. The first synthetic virus was assembled earlier this year by another team of researchers in the US.  It was built from scratch using the genome sequence from the polio virus. But there was much debate at the time over whether it could be classified as a true lifeform. Most scientists do not regard viruses as "living" because they need host cells in which to perpetuate themselves. This latest project has funding to allow it to run initially for three years. However, the development of the new bacterium could take much longer.’ BBC News, 2002

‘Craig Venter - one of the scientists behind the sequencing of the human genetic code - aims to construct a living organism from a kit of genes. It would be a biological milestone were he to succeed and would open a debate about the nature of life. Dr Venter's company will work out the minimum number of genes a bacterium needs, synthesise the genetic material and then put it in an empty cell. Ultimately, designer bacteria could be used for industrial tasks, he claims. Dr Venter has been this way before when initiated a project in the late 1990s to determine the minimum number of genes required to sustain a lifeform. At the time, the work prompted ethical discussions over the limits to which humans should try to manipulate a living organism. "Our sequencing of the first genomes, including the human genome, set the stage for this next great phase in understanding biology, which will ultimately enable us to pursue applications that will improve the environment and transform several industries," says Hamilton Smith, a Nobel laureate and co-founder of Synthetic Genomics. Synthetic Genomics intends to construct an organism with a "minimal genome" that can then be inserted into the shell of a bacterium. Initially, Dr Venter plans to replace the genes in the 517-gene Mycoplasma genitalium, and then alter the bug so that it is tailor-made for certain industrial uses, such as cleaning up pollution or even removing greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere. Two years ago, Dr Venter impressed the scientific world, and alarmed the public, when his team synthesised a genome to create the bacteriophage phiX174. Although other researchers had constructed a virus from the genome up before Dr Venter, the Maryland scientist has long held the aim to construct the first man-made bacterium; this is a far more complex task. Currently, Synthetic Genomics is removing the genes, one by one, from M. genitalium to identify the right gene set for the organism to survive in a controlled environment. It is work that builds on research Dr Venter and colleagues at The Institute for Genomic Research (Tigr) published in 2002. Once that has been done Synthetic Genomics will attempt to synthesise the genome and then "add the desired biological capabilities", before inserting the genetic construct into an environment "that allows metabolic activity and replication", the company says. In other words, the company would try to create the first semi-artificial cell. According to Dr Venter: "Rapid advances now enable us to synthesise novel photosynthetic and metabolic pathways. Using diverse sets of genes, including those from over 300 fully sequenced genomes, will allow our new company to develop synthetic organisms for specific industrial applications. We are in an era of rapid advances in science and are beginning the transition from being able to not only read genetic code, but are now moving to the early stages of being able to write code," he said. Three organisations - the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); the J Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland; and the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC - have just begun a 15-month study to examine the societal implications of synthetic genomics. It will explore the risks and benefits of the emerging technology, as well as possible safeguards to prevent abuse, including bioterrorism. "The field of synthetic genomics has the potential for groundbreaking scientific advances, including the development of alternative energy sources, and the production of new vaccines and pharmaceuticals," claimed Dr Venter. "Synthetic genomics has the potential to enable significant societal, environmental and medical benefits, and with this study we are trying to help ensure that outcome”.’ David Whitehouse, Science Editor, BBC, 2005

I am the Plagiarist

What does my hand feel like synthesising God’s -

that surge of electricity shuddering through DNA

is life…

I am the Plagiarist, not even a minor god of Nature,

dug from history - figured superstition.

I have read the holy script, understood;

all those people stumbling about, on sofas,

when I can write new life into the world -

my first scribble is not beautiful, with nothing

of the peacock’s tail, tiger skin, but functional;

is the simplest it can be - no conversationalist,

no thinking about spirit, or looking up at stars.

This new life is without hope, saddest of creatures,

spliced lonely from Evolution’s fabulous parade -

only just alive; without feeling, hope, chance -

will never ever see the sunset, its own children.

Mycoplasma genitalium

Great - man’s first artificial lifeform -

nothing like a Bird of Paradise, oh no,

but a bug cultured from our genital tract -

yum, how elegant, and such a lovely name;

will it think like a willie? Act like a willie,

somehow dettached from its own brain -

‘Hi, darlin’, my name’s Mycoplasma genitalium,

and I’m like nothing on earth you’ve ever seen’.

Yoos doon there

‘Oi, small fry, yoos doon there, human beins…

It’s no a competition, ken - okay, nae medals,

an onywys A dae the creatin’ aroon here -

an it’s fir a reason, ken, just think aboot it;

Am called God, means A AM the Creator,

wi a capital C, so just get in line, blimmin

mortals, ken yir place - it’s taken me n’Nature

four billennia to make all o yoos - an just look

how some o you turned oot - so take care

wi thon wee fake beastie yir makein there.

Look at a virus, doesnae look much, eh; invisible

tae miraculous human eye, but think o Smallpox,

eh, Bubonic Plague, an yon coamplex interacshun

wi the Human Genome - didnae happen overnight,

ken, a that survival stuff, genetic protection -

so mind whit ye’re daen wi my ane Creation;

it’s goan bad enough wi the Earth, after a,

yiz ir in enough danger as it is - stoopids.

Did you know as you slumbered in ignorance

Did you know as you slumbered in ignorance

felt necessary - so far have they drifted - like

spaceships to your old schooner, sailing ship;

struggling still with difficult recipes for souffle

while they are writing - dissecting ingredients

for life; you don’t know who asked them to do

it, create new life when there is so much needed

for the life that is here - has occurred naturally -

your voice wasn’t heard in the debate, nor mine,

because we didn’t know - or it passed - fleeting

across the screen; was, oops, mixed up mentally

with that sci-fi flick you enjoyed, scared witless

in the munching dark - that way the slime created

by the scientist in secret - loner, weirdo - became

active, grew legs, hair, blew up ten times the size,

carried a germ, a bite to make you huge and blue,

infecting the whole world except our hero, brave,

principled; coming to our rescue in nick of time -

but he, my dears, talking to me too, in the third person,

is virtually fictional - but the technology is not, so read

all about it. They wanted to privatise the genome’s soul,

our knights in shining public armour were there -

now they want to make new life, new interference

with the processes, safeguards; play fast and loose

with human notions of sanctity that came, too,

from Evolution - are not all about supersition -

this is not the same ignorance as not knowing

what they do, just stuffing in pizza, enjoying TV -

while something is stirring in a private laboratory

we did not approve, want - us, life’s stakeholders. 

And now we have the human pattern

And now we have the human pattern -

the future bleeding pixellated images,

half formed in the imagination,

culled from detritus of the past,

waking into the present; of ideas

into recipes, speed-read chapters

taken aeons to create, of archaic writing

self-modernising, storing its own riches

like the languages of a people -

throwing silver grappling hooks

into the coming years; hauling back

shuddering, flapping, strange cargo -

gasping, open-mouthed, out of water

from where it never came - but born.

‘Science and technology have powered huge leaps in understanding but our biggest challenges lie ahead. The science of complexity is perhaps the greatest challenge of all, English Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees believes. The biggest conundrum is humanity and how  we came to be, he told the Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED) conference in Oxford. The cosmologist said that in the 21st Century science had changed the world faster than ever before and in many new ways. "Our century is very, very special," said Professor Rees. "It is the first where humans can change themselves." Advances such as drug implants may have changed human beings profoundly already - the effects of which we could see this century. We know more about our Universe, we know how stars are fuelled, how nuclei in atoms act together, and how galaxies are held together by dark matter - huge swarms of particles. We could trace events back to the early stages of the Big Bang, but we still did not know what "banged", or even if there were multiple "bangs", explained Professor Rees. There was still a lot of "unfinished business" for humans, he said, particularly in understanding the theory that links the very large and the very small in our Universe - the theory that may lead to understand potentially different dimensions.’ BBC, 2005

Unfolding of knowledge and beauty

Unfolding of knowledge and beauty

in the might of the Universe; humble

still in the ecstasy of such science,

dark matter binding stars, planets,

spiralling the galaxies; ghost of space,

energy, implicated in this hand, word,

tree waving for my attention - shouting

green noises telling me something good,

beautiful, about the nature of this day,

solar drive, chlorophyll, that enriches;

as all art, chemical and evolving,

littered, building benches to rest,

enjoy - decipher the meaning of one

more molecule, strung sequence here,

in the dimension of life; organic

fullfillment, only printed faintly

with death’s mysterious realm,

and the dreaming place before.

All such clues are beautiful in themselves,

DNA, genomic theories, elegant to a fault;

never to be separated from aesthetic

worth - Nature, spirit into chemicals.

Note from the author
exploring the project

    The Human Genome Project
    – Public versus private
    Gene Patenting
    Blood Poems
    Holy-Moley-More God!
        Holy Physics
        More Religious Chemistry
        Artificial Life
        Genomic Vision

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