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Texas Braces For More Protestors: The Creation of Artificial Life Expected In Three To Ten Years

Sep 4, 2007
In three to ten years, expect the major announcement this country has been waiting for -- that artificial life has been officially created. Whether one is vehemently opposed to such technology, or believes it the greatest scientific breakthrough of the modern era, get ready.

Scientists in the obscure field of "wet artificial life" are making steady progress towards the creation of viable life from scratch. The first synthetic protocell has been manufactured from the basic chemicals found in DNA -- news that may not seem astounding to much of the general populace, but is almost overwhelming for certain scientists, who believe it an achievement worthy of heralding a new era of medicine and technology. Diseases can be fought, scientists say, greenhouse gases locked up, and toxic waste eaten away.

"We're talking about a technology that could change our world in pretty fundamental ways -- in fact, in ways that are impossible to predict," said Mark Bedau, chief operating officer of ProtoLife Srl. of Venice, Italy.

For religious communities, the political arena, and the healthcare and health insurance industries, however, this could mean more than just another laboratory discovery. The debate over when life actually begins, after all, has been heated, to say the least. Many pro-lifers argue it starts with conception. Should viable forms of life, then -- whether created naturally or artificially -- be given the same medical and legal rights as others? Once produced, should every effort be employed to keep them alive? Announcing the creation of a new artificial life form would surely bring the same debates, controversies, and protests that cloning, stem cell research, and abortion procedures have wrought.

Texas is one such state deeply divided. While the Texas Legislature and judicial system are not exactly known for their liberal stances on issues surrounding the definition of life, Texas A & M University was actually the first academic institution in the world to have cloned four different species, including the domestic cat -- amidst, of course, vehement protests. ViaGen, Inc., a company specializing in advanced livestock genetic technologies, is based in Austin, and is one part of an effort to create the first commercial horse cloning operation. Two famous horses have already been cloned with ViaGen, including legendary cutting horse, Royal Blue Boon.

Abortion clinics across the state, including cities like Dallas, Houston and Austin, have seen their share of serious protestors, as well. In 1990, a director of a Texas abortion clinic and an obstetrician were excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church by their local bishop. Harriet Miers, one-time Supreme Court nominee and advisor to President Bush, has been quoted as saying she would support a bill banning abortion, except when the procedure would be necessary to save the mother's life. Texas resident President Bush, as well, is quite well-known for his conservative views on the definition of life, restricting cloning and stem cell projects, and tightening laws surrounding abortion rights.

In the midst of this era of controversy surrounding the definition of life, an undated photo recently released by ProtoLife shows the creation of artificial membranes, or the "containers" of cells. Being able to produce these "containers" is one of the major obstacles to creating artificial life, says Bedau. Therefore, to consistently overcome this would be a pivotal breakthrough.

Once membranes are present, cells can create a barrier against "bad" molecules, keep the "good" ones in, and multiply. Bedau believes that the other two major obstacles facing scientists in this field are, (1) getting the nucleotides, or "blocks of DNA" to form a working genetic system, and (2) establishing the proper cell metabolism. Creating a working genetic system would enable the cells to function, to reproduce and to change in accordance with their environment. Establishing a functioning metabolism would allow cells to extract raw materials from the environment and convert them to food and energy.

Jack Szostak, of the Harvard Medical School, believes that consistently being able to create membranes will not be "a big problem" within six months. Scientists are using fatty acids to achieve this goal, he says, and is also optimistic about labs producing artificial genetic systems, as described by Bedau, within the near future. Once the membranes are produced, scientists can add nucleotides in the right proportions and, reasonably, Darwinian evolution could take over.

"We aren't smart enough to design things, we just let evolution do the hard work and then we figure out what happened," said Szostak.

There is more than one approach to solving these problems, however. Steve Benner, a biological chemist at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution, is going down a different avenue of thought. Normal DNA consists of four bases -- adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine -- pairing up to create genetic codes. Benner is attempting to add eight entirely new bases to the chemical equation, and working from there, produce new life.

While there are legitimate concerns about the far-reaching consequences of creating artificial life, Bedau assures the public that it will be a "long time" before cells running "amok" is even a possibility. "It'll be a huge achievement if you can keep them [artificial cells] alive for an hour in a lab. But them getting out and taking over, never in our imagination could this happen."

No matter how long it takes, or which scientists do it first, protestors are sure to be there.

Being aware of scientific breakthroughs affecting your health is an important part of taking care of yourself. Minding your health will certainly affect you as you age, and eventually your wallet.
About the Author
Pat Carpenter writes for Precedent Insurance Company. Precedent puts a new spin on health insurance. Learn more at Precedent.com
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