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An optimal motor but not life

· On the creation of a bacterial cell with synthetic DNA ·

Science magazine reported an important research development concerning the creation of a bacterial cell with synthetic DNA. Already in 2002 scientists had synthesized the genome of the polio virus. The work of Craig Venter and his team – authors of the study – is certainly more refined, however. That much is clear even from the New York Times article, which describes the genome that Venter synthesized in the laboratory as 100 times longer.

His achievement is not only in the massive size of the product but also in the capacity to obtain a copy of something that constitutes a dangerous bacteria for goats, with the foresight to eliminate 14 genes that rendered it pathogenic and then to insert it into one bacterium in the place of the DNA of the bacteria itself.

It is therefore a high-level work of genetic engineering, a step beyond the replacement of DNA parts. But in reality life has not been created; one of the motors has been replaced.

Just as geneticist David Baltimore of the California Institute of Technology wrote in the New York Times : “He has not created life, only mimicked it”. And bioengineer Jim Collins added: “This doesn't represent the creation of life from scratch”.

Claims and newspaper headlines aside, an interesting result has been obtained, which can potentially have applications and must follow rules, like everything that touches on the heart of life. Genetic engineering has the potential to do good: suffice it to think of the possibilities in the treatment of chromosomal diseases. It is a matter of combining courage with caution. Interventions in the genome can – we hope – cure, but they also tread on extremely fragile ground, in which the context and the manipulations play a role that cannot be underestimated.

DNA is not like an engine with replaceable pistons, but rather a living being on which inappropriate stimuli – even if applied with good intentions – can “switch off” some genes in an unexpected way, according to epigenetic rules. Indeed many are worried over possible future developments of genetically modified organisms.

DNA can be reconstructed; this doesn't amaze us. But at the same time it must be considered that DNA is only one of the “motors” of life: first of all because animals' DNA can be found not only in the nucleus but also in other mitochondrial structures, and secondly because there exists a protein system that controls and regulates the expression of DNA. Furthermore, DNA interacts with its surroundings and hence is not like a film that always plays in the same way. Instead it “speaks” in different ways, depending on the stimuli to which it is exposed. These qualifications limit us to but a few aspects of biology.

Thus DNA holds great significance, and the expectations of genetic science are also great. Yet even if DNA is an optimal motor, it is not life.




St. Peter’s Square

Feb. 24, 2020