- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 20, 2003

Glancing through the British tech journal New Scientist, I discover that a guy is going to try to assemble a real, live, functioning bacterium more or less from scratch. This is further proof that the biological sciences are getting very strange and fascinating.
The guy is Craig Venter, working with Hamilton Smith, a DNA specialist with a Nobel Prize under his belt, so he must know something. Mr. Venter led Celera Genomics Group, a Rockville biotech company, as it mapped the human genome.
The work will be done in Maryland under a grant from the Department of Energy at Mr. Venter's Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives.
They are going to work with a simple bug called Mycoplasma genitalium. Normally, it has 517 genes. A fellow named Clyde Hutchinson, at the University of North Carolina, managed to reduce that to 265.
Building on this, Mr. Venter wants to remove all genetic material from the organism, assemble an artificial chromosome (an intracellular gadget that contains DNA) and put it into the emptied cell. Creating an entire bacterium from scratch isn't doable yet.
We have enough bacteria already. Why do we need to make a new one? Especially a really stripped down one? Can it sing? Can it dance? Who cares?
One reason is to take a step toward answering the question "What is life?" The tendency in a mechanistically minded age is to assume that life is just a complicated bunch of chemical reactions in the same place. But since so far all life has come from previous life, it may be that there is something to living things other than just chemistry.
If you can make a living organism starting from simple compounds (which, again, isn't quite what Mr. Venter is trying, but it's starting to get close), an intriguing question will have been answered.
Recently, it was done with the polio virus: Scientists strung together its genetic code and infected mice. But a virus looks more like a complicated chemical compound than an organism. A bacterium is unequivocally an organism.
Another reason why the research is important is that it works toward answering the question of how simple a bacterium can be and still live. For people who want evidence that life evolved spontaneously, instead of accepting the usual approach of quasi-religious faith that it did, this matters. The simpler an organism can be, the more plausible it becomes that it might have formed accidentally.
Research involving putting genes into cells has been going on for a long time now. A serious concern has been that people with bad intentions might build a bug that produces deadly toxins and let it loose in the world. If a common intestinal bacterium like E. coli were modified to produce botulin toxin, it would be scary.
New Scientist reports: "Venter said he also feared that publishing details of the technique could allow other scientists to create a formidable bioweapon by splicing genes from different deadly pathogens together inside the streamlined cell."
And so details may be kept secret. Well, that's the idea anyway. The thing about scientific research is that things get easier over time. And you can't stop it.
I don't fault the researchers, who are doing worthwhile work to answer legitimate questions. The work would be done somewhere anyway. Yet scientists are saying that we may be moving toward catastrophic trouble. Synthesizing lethal viruses is likely to become routine science.
Governments are unlikely to use, say, weaponized smallpox because most of them aren't quite crazy and anyway within months or less it would make its way back to their own populations. But a nut case with a degree and a lab? Starting a plague is getting easier than stopping one, this column thinks.


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