"It's life Jim but not as we know it."

Rev Dr Graham O'Brien - On behalf of the Interchurch Bioethics Council
Issue 31, August 2010

In May 2010 scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute announced the creation of the first self-replicating synthetic bacterial cell, however claims that the Venter team had created new life are an over exaggeration (CNN: "Scientists Create a Living Organism.") What the scientists have done is to make a synthetic copy of a bacterial genome - the 1.08 million base pair chromosome of a modified Mycoplasma mycoides - and insert this into another bacterium Mycoplasma capricolum , resulting in a self-replicating cell controlled solely by the synthetic genome - effectively turning Mycoplasma capricolum into Mycoplasma mycoides. The result is the culmination of 15 years of research and marks a significant development in our understanding of how DNA controls cellular growth and also represents the construction of the largest synthetic molecule of a defined structure.

As Dr Gibson one of the research team stated, "To produce a synthetic cell, our group had to learn how to sequence, synthesize, and transplant genomes. Many hurdles had to be overcome, but we are now able to combine all of these steps to produce synthetic cells in the laboratory." He added, "We can now begin working on our ultimate objective of synthesizing a minimal cell containing only the genes necessary to sustain life in its simplest form. This will help us better understand how cells work." [1]

Ethical issues:

By their own omission, there are three potential risks from the use of synthetic genomics: the risk of its use in bioterrorism, risks to the health of laboratory workers and to the public, and possible harm to the environment from accidental release of microbes with synthetic genomes. [2]

All these risks highlight the unknown consequence of such research. With such an array of potential harms, the question arises as to whether this research constitutes the first building block in producing a "Biological Babel", the goal of which is to produce a fully synthetic life form? "Babel" refers to the biblical story (Genesis 11) where hubris led humanity to try and be like God. In this context, Dietrich Bonhoeffer's distinction between Ultimate action (that which can done only by God) and Penultimate action (that which can be done by humanity) provides a Christian ethical response. The attempt to create synthetic organisms with unknown benefits/harms is suggestive of humanity taking on the role of "Creator", a role that is not ours to strive for. Rather, the calling of humanity is to look after God's creation in order to preserve the integrity of creation, something that would be threatened by the introduction of synthetic organisms.

As the scientists suggested, "the knowledge gained by constructing this first self-replicating synthetic cell, coupled with decreasing costs for DNA synthesis, will give rise to wider use of this powerful technology. This will undoubtedly lead to the development of many important applications and products including biofuels, vaccines, pharmaceuticals, clean water and food products." [3] Although there are potential benefits, the risks, both known and unknown, mean that the virtue of prudence (which includes caution) is important in determining whether this kind of research is permissible. Prudence places the good of the community over the good of the individual (or that of the corporation). Significantly, prudence critiques our society's obsession with 'rights', by placing 'goodness' prior to 'rightness' so that first it must be established what is good before accounting for what is right. Although the Venter scientists may feel they have a right to do this kind of research, there is an important question that first needs to be answered; "Is the creation of synthetic organisms good – not just for the company but for all of creation?" The problem is that by the time actual harm is identified it will be too late, given the rapid rate of reproduction in microorganisms. Alongside this, the possibility of further genetic exchange with naturally occurring organisms is unknown and uncontrollable and so any consequences may be more extensive than first assumed.

Furthermore there is the possibility that as technology increases, this methodology will be used on other more complicated life forms in order to manipulate them for our ends, not theirs. This raises the issue of motive, which in a commercial world can mean progress and profit rather than benefit to humanity or creation as a whole. Even though we can control (to some degree) the organisms we create, we cannot control the motivation of humanity, increasing the potential of irreversible risk or harm. Again, referring to the ultimate/penultimate dialectic, human motivation should be grounded in and reflective of the love of God. As a result, restraint is called for when the motivation for action is our own benefit rather than the benefit of others.

The recent creation of a synthetic genome capable of reprogramming another organism is a significant advance in biological research. There are however many ethical questions that remain unanswered, highlighting the very real risks involved in this kind of research to creation as a whole.


Rev Dr Graham O'Brien, has a PhD in Cellular and Molecular Biology (Canterbury), a MTh (Laidlaw College), and has a dual role as Lecturer Bishopdale Theological College and Ministry Education Coordinator in the Anglican Diocese of Nelson.

The Interchurch Bioethics Council (ICBC) is an ecumenical body supported by the Anglican, Methodist and Presbyterian Churches of Aotearoa New Zealand, with the mandate to engage in consultation and dialogue with church members and the community (including Government departments) on the ethical, spiritual and cultural issues raised by biotechnology.

[1] http://www.jcvi.org/cms/press/press-releases/full-text/article/first-self-replicating-synthetic-bacterial-cell-constructed-by-j-craig-venter-institute-researcher/ . Downloaded 7 July, 2010.

[2] http://www.jcvi.org/cms/fileadmin/site/research/projects/synthetic-genomics-report/synthetic-genomics-report.pdf . Downloaded 7 July, 2010.

[3] See Footnote 1.