Earth’s 1st Non-Biological Self-Replicating Species

6a00d8341bf7f753ef0133ee9a0698970b-320wi This is “the first self-replicating species we’ve had on the planet whose parent is a computer.”

Dr. Craig Venter -pioneer of the human genome

2010 might be looked back on as the year of the Earth's first non-biological self-replicating species. The genome pioneer J. Craig Venter has taken another step in his quest to create synthetic life by synthesizing an entire bacterial genome and using it to take over a cell.

In his famous essay, Why the Future Doesn't Need Us, Silicon Valley scientist and software engineer, Bill Joy warns about possible dangers of genetic engineering using a work of fiction as a possible scenario. In The White Plague, by Frank Herbert – a molecular biologist is driven insane by the senseless murder of his family. To seek revenge he constructs and disseminates a new and highly contagious plague that kills widely but selectively.

Joy asks why weren't people more concerned about possible nightmarish scenarios of future genetic creations? Part of the answer, he says, "lies in our bias toward instant familiarity and unquestioning acceptance. Accustomed to living with almost routine scientific breakthroughs, we have yet to come to terms with the fact that the most compelling 21st-century technologies – robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology – pose a different threat than the technologies that have come before. Specifically, robots, engineered organisms, and nanobots share a dangerous amplifying factor: They can self-replicate. A bomb is blown up only once – but one bot can become many, and quickly get out of control."

Self-replication is the modus operandi of genetic engineering, which uses the machinery of the cell to replicate its designs, and the prime danger. Self-replication may be more fundamental than we thought, and hence harder – or even impossible – to control. A recent article by Stuart Kauffman in Nature titled "Self-Replication: Even Peptides Do It" discusses the discovery that a 32-amino-acid peptide can "autocatalyse its own synthesis." We don't know how widespread this ability is, but Kauffman notes that it may hint at "a route to self-reproducing molecular systems on a basis far wider than Watson-Crick base-pairing."

Parasites are the most likely to acquire and transfer genes between species, and Venter synthesized the genome of a parasite, Mycoplasma mycoides, which targets vertebrates and is resistant to various antibiotics. Horizontal gene transfer also plays a significant role in the acquisition of antibiotic resistance which can be conveyed to a new bacterial host. These genes interact with yet other genes to provide resistance even to newly invented antibiotics.

The epoch of Darwinian evolution based on competition between species ended about ten thousand years ago, says Freeman Dyson, of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton in a more upbeat note, when a single species, Homo sapiens, began to dominate and reorganize the . Since that time, cultural evolution has replaced biological evolution as the main driving force of change.

Cultural evolution is not Darwinian. Cultures spread by horizontal transfer of ideas more than by genetic inheritance. Cultural evolution is running a thousand times faster than Darwinian evolution, taking us into a new era of cultural interdependence which we call globalization.

And now, as Homo sapiens domesticates the new biotechnology, we are reviving the ancient pre-Darwinian practice of horizontal gene transfer, moving genes easily from microbes to plants and animals, blurring the boundaries between species.

In a recent article in the New York Review of Books, Dyson sees the world as moving rapidly into the post-Darwinian era, "when species other than our own will no longer exist, and the rules of Open Source sharing will be extended from the exchange of software to the exchange of genes. Then the evolution of life will once again be communal, as it was before separate species and intellectual property were invented."

Dr. Venter calls the result a “synthetic cell” and presented the research as a landmark achievement that will open the way to creating useful microbes from scratch to make products like vaccines and biofuels according to The New York Times.

“This is an important step, we think, both scientifically and philosophically,” Dr. Venter said in an interview with the journal Science, which is publishing the research this week. “It’s certainly changed my views of definitions of life and of how life works.”

Evolution, it has been said, does not take place in small steps, as Darwin claimed, but in leaps after long periods of stasis. We have to wonder if the next great leap will be one of our own creations.

Casey Kazan via New York Times

Our Biotech Future by Freeman Dyson


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