Science in Review — January 2014

Schematic of plastic cell showing membranes within membranes

Schematic of plastic cell showing membranes within membranes Source: Gizmag article

As Tom Ingebritsen’s series looks to the past and the origin of life on Earth, I’ve been thinking about an origin of life that may be coming in the future. The quest to create a completely artificial life form is a very active field of biological research. The creation of artificial membranes inside membranes, mimicking the topology of eukaryotic organisms, is just one of the recent milestones scientists have achieved. I won’t pretend to know when or if this program will be completely successful, but the progress so far and the amount of effort invested makes me inclined to think it will be, and sooner than later.

A natural first question might be — why? Of course, there’s the universal scientific answer — to see if we can, and to learn something whether we succeed or not. I don’t think that’s a trivial reason, and plenty of important and useful discoveries have come from similarly motivated endeavors. Some of the big questions of science and philosophy, such as “What makes something ‘alive’?” or “What are the minimal conditions for life?”, don’t have definitive, universally accepted answers. Trying to build artificial organisms might help narrow down the answers, or at least illuminate what we mean by the questions.

And if we succeed, there will almost certainly be practical applications. We already use bacteria to synthesize medically useful molecules like insulin in large quantities; we could possibly expand the range of compounds made this way beyond those with naturally existing pathways, or minimize the nutritional requirements of the organisms. We also use them to clean up our messes (like oil spills) by digesting unwanted or harmful compounds into innocuous ones. Again, there is the potential to expand the repertoire of available metabolisms, or engineer organisms that can survive in environments no existing organism can tolerate. Imagine all our garbage being eaten by microbes and transformed into useful raw materials!

But let’s push a little further: what if we could engineer cells that can pass immunologically for one’s own? We could use those to grow tissues and organs for transplant that don’t require a lifetime regimen of immunosuppressants to prevent rejection. Of course, that may also be possible from stem cells, so let’s keep going. What if we realize the goal of a fully programmable genome? Imagine treating diabetes by injecting a patient with artificial cells that can sense blood sugar levels and synthesize insulin on demand as needed. Then think of all the conditions that we currently treat with open-ended pharmaceutical prescriptions; instead of the cost and compliance issues from having to take pills every day, you could receive a single injection that provides more accurate and responsive dosing that is as-needed instead of just-in-case. Or the cells could be programmed to seek out particular locations in your body and deliver a drug to that tissue alone, sparing the rest of your cells from exposure they don’t need. I can’t promise we will have these things one day, but they are certainly plausible in principle.

So far, we’ve remained largely in the realm of single-celled organisms. What if we ventured into artificial multicelluar creatures? Would we make animals that could provide meat but not feel pain or experience boredom, to ameliorate our concerns about the lives of our livestock? Would we engineer animals for medical research that more accurately mimic human physiology than our current mouse and primate models? Would we try to make artificial humans? To what end?

OK, so we’ve definitely wandered into some speculative, science fiction territory. Some of these ideas may be many decades away, if they are realizable at all. These may seem like flights of fancy, but I think this sort of imagining can help us prepare for the fiction before it becomes fact. All too often our conceptual frameworks lag behind our technological developments, which can mean the important questions get de facto answers when more careful reflection would have been preferred.

So, what questions should we answer before artificial life becomes a reality? Are there boundaries we want to establish? Should artificial life be restricted to single-celled organisms? Should certain applications be prohibited? Should we oppose the whole enterprise entirely?

Are there intellectual property issues to be considered? Should an individual or a corporation be allowed to own or patent or copyright a species? Can someone else own organs or tissues that are integrated into your body?

What about public perception? To me it seems clear that artificial organisms should be treated the same as any other organism, and their treatment should be assessed by the same criteria. But decades of science fiction precedent have established that clones are somehow lesser beings than their templates; they are often treated as disposable cannon fodder. Do we need to rethink the stories we tell about personhood, identity, and sentience, so that artificial organisms can get equal treatment?

As Christians, do we need to consider updating our natural theology for the possibility of a second (and third, and tenth) origin of life on Earth? Should we stake a claim to the assertion that it will be impossible? Is it useful to invoke language about “playing God” and if so, does that concept argue in favor or against creating artificial life?

Or maybe this kind of prospective, speculative approach is the wrong way to address these issues. Maybe some of these institutions, like our legal frameworks, should lag behind, so that we don’t create situations where we guessed wrong and have to live with decisions that are worse than if we had done nothing.

That sort of question, like many of these, is well beyond my expertise as a biologist, and so I won’t pretend I know the answers. I may not even know what the right questions are to ask. But I do believe these are issues we are going to face sooner or later, and so I think these are the kinds of conversations that we need to be prepared to have.

Schematic of a NAND gate implemented in DNA

A logical NAND gate implemented genetically; sequences like these could be the basis of a programmable genome Public domain

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog.

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