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Religion, science

Do Bacteria Go To Heaven?

As most of you probably know, scientists have created the first “synthetic cell.”  Dr. Craig Venter’s team at the J. Craig Venter Institute have synthesized a cell using the DNA map from Mycoplasma mycoides, a goat pathogen.  It’s not too unlike the way student artists copy masterwork paintings.  The scientists had a map of the bacteria they were recreating, and they pieced together small stretches of synthetic DNA until they had nearly perfectly reproduced it.

Interestingly, they did a couple of other things that ID proponents should be especially interested in.  Because they are benevolent beings, and don’t wish ill towards goats, they replaced the stretches of DNA that make the bacteria pathogenic in goats.   In other words, they made the bacteria harmless. More interestingly, they inserted a real code into the bacteria, so that anyone smart enough to crack the code would find evidence of an intelligent designer — namely man!  What’s more, they didn’t go out of the way to hide their handiwork.  They also put the key to cracking the code right there in the DNA.

Although they didn’t reveal all of the secrets, the scientists divulged several quotes.  “To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life,” from James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is one of them.*  What a brilliant way for Venter to expose one of the most egregious lies spread by ID proponents!  Humble man has managed – on his first try — to encode life with an unmistakable and incontrovertible proof of intelligent design.  The odds against James Joyce’s quote being embedded in DNA is so infinitesimally small that it’s not worth considering.  Only an intelligent designer could have done it.  But as if to drive the point home, there are lots more quotes, and get this — the names of the designers.

Of course, there are no such codes or messages hidden in naturally occurring DNA.  It gives every indication of having been cobbled together by millions of years of unguided natural selection.

Ethical Concerns

There’s no surprise that the doomsayers and theists have already come out of the gate with dire warnings of horror movie consequences for this travesty of nature.  The science-haters are saying that this will lead to the end of the human race when some bioterrorist decides to make a super-bug.  Venter has already addressed this concern, noting that it took 40 million dollars and a team of  20 post-docs to do this.  It’s simply not feasible for the average terrorist.

While this is true now, I find this line of reasoning unsatisfying.  Only a couple of decades ago, it cost millions of dollars to decode a tiny stretch of DNA.  Now, it costs thousands.  In another decade, it might cost tens.  This is the nature of technology.  It gets more accessible and cheaper.  It is probably realistic to assume that there will come a day when terrorists can design bacteria.

But this should not deter us from continuing the research.  The fact is, we already have hundreds — perhaps thousands — of technologies that terrorists can use against us.  That they haven’t exploited most of them is certainly a thing to celebrate, but let’s not kid ourselves and suggest that until and unless terrorists can manufacture the super-flu, they are just sitting around playing canasta.  There are thousands of ways to kill humans.

Perhaps more importantly, this whole line of moral objection misses the broad point.  Technology is neither good nor evil.  It is knowledge, which can be used to help or to harm.  Nuclear technology could wipe us out, but it could also be the tool we use to discover extraterrestrial life.**  High energy electromagnetic radiation is regularly used by doctors to diagnose, treat, and even cure deadly illnesses.

Of course, the religious concerns are… well… silly.  Theists will undoubtedly continue to display their ignorance of the basics of life.  True, this is not entirely synthetic life, but that doesn’t really matter.  We are making huge leaps towards the day when we can synthesize life from scratch.  We will probably accomplish that goal, maybe even before I shuffle off this mortal coil.  But that doesn’t matter either.  The fact is, there’s nothing magical about life.  It doesn’t have a mystical supernatural property that takes it out of the reach of human understanding.  It’s just another chemical process — albeit a very complex one.  All we’ve done is what scientists have always done.  We’ve observed the nature of the universe, and having observed it, manipulated it so that it did what we wanted.

Except for the unique property of betraying intelligent design, the new bacteria is indistinguishable from other life.  We haven’t re-invented life.  We’ve just reproduced it.  But even this act causes some problems for dualists and other afterlife believers.  Bacteria and humans aren’t really very different.  We’re a lot more complicated, but that’s really the only substantial difference.  We’re very, very complicated versions of bacteria.  There’s no dividing line between us and them.  In theory, the very same technology that we used to create a bacteria could be used to create a human.  And yes, we could choose blond hair or brunette, balding or not, and hundreds of other traits.  It’s entirely possible that within a generation, we could design a human from scratch.  (Yes, the computing power is probably beyond our reach now, but seriously, just look at your IPhone, and if you’re old enough, try to remember your first calculator watch.  Enough said.)

In the meantime, we could do a lilac, or a pig, or an Africanized honeybee.  There are many technical hurdles, to be sure, but we’ve taken the first step towards redesigning life on a grand scale.  The potential for good is at least as great as the potential for evil.

And while the scientists are dutifully plugging away at the real science, theists will be squirming, trying to figure out a new approach to discredit them.  They’ll be debating whether a “synthetic human” would have a soul.  They’ll ignore the fact that the very reason all of this science works on humans is that we’re no different from any other life.  They’ll avoid the question of whether pigs or lilacs have souls.  It will never occur to them to ask when it was that a soul magically appeared in DNA as bacteria evolved over 4 billion years, with some of its branches growing so radically different that they are now millions of times bigger and more complex, and have brains big enough to invent the concept of a soul.

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* On a personal note, I don’t recommend reading the whole thing just to find the context of this quote.  I respect it for being noteworthy literature, but I’d rather put my eye out with a rusty spoon than read this book again.

** It has been suggested that a nuclear reaction will be used to melt through the thick ice sheet covering Jupiter’s moon, Europa.  Many of the components necessary for life have been detected in the atmosphere, and there is speculation that a warm ocean lies beneath the surface.


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Discussion

11 thoughts on “Do Bacteria Go To Heaven?

  1. Yo Hamby,

    Atheists need to take notice that a computer program was needed to insert information of the “Code” into the genome because the information was seperate and distinct from the synthetic matter. It then begs the question, how did the first set of information get programed into the first cell?

    Also, Does such a cell knowably signal design? And, if so, why wouldn’t cells untouched by Synthetic implants do the same, i.e., implicate design?

    Regarding the scientific experiment, This is truely a major scientific achievement, however, dont believe all the hype. It was simply a part of a cell that was synthetic, not the entire cell. Science has been manipulatiing the various parts of an organism for years.

    BTW, If something is going to be called “synthetic,” shouldn’t the whole of it be synthesized and not merely a minuscule portion of it? In otherwords, if I use a prosthetic arm which is a crude replication of the origional arm, does that make me synthetic?

    .

    Posted by PG | May 24, 2010, 2:01 pm
  2. After rereading your post Hamby, it seems to me that you are stating that more computer power is necessary to provide the vast amout of information necessary to be encoded and required to reproduce life.

    Atheists are suppose to mix chemicals to arrive at the desired results, not use computers and computer programs which implicates design.

    It seems to me that Venter has wonderfully illustrated the fact that information needs to be encoded into the matter because it is not obtainable by simple chemical reactions.

    As I quoted several times in the past,..

    “Information is Information, neither matter nor energy. No materialism that fails to take account of this can survive the present day.” – Norbert Weiner, MIT Mathematician and Father of Cybernetics .

    .

    Posted by PG | May 24, 2010, 6:47 pm
  3. I think a major ethical concern you seemed to have left out in bio engineering is patents.

    That is if such and such DNA sequence that can lead to major benefits and is then patented, then the application of the sequence is limited and it would cost large sums of money reproduce due to the patent dues and be reduced production where as if it was public domain, it could get out faster, cheaper, and in larger quantities.

    Posted by Cpt_Pineapple | May 24, 2010, 8:46 pm
  4. I think a major ethical concern you seemed to have left out in bio engineering is patents.

    That is if such and such DNA sequence that can lead to major benefits and is then patented, then the application of the sequence is limited and it would cost large sums of money reproduce due to the patent dues and be reduced production where as if it was public domain, it could get out faster, cheaper, and in larger quantities.

    Yes indeed,

    Infact a court ruling earlier this year denies any patents on DNA because of it s unique staus as a literal code…

    “The information encoded in DNA is not information about its own molecular structure incidental to its biological function, as is the case with adrenaline or other chemicals found in the body. Rather, the information encoded by DNA reflects its primary biological function: directing the synthesis of other molecules in the body – namely, proteins, “biological molecules of enormous importance” which “catalyze biochemical reactions” and constitute the “major structural materials of the animal body.”

    and

    “Consequently, the use of simple analogies comparing DNA with chemical compounds previously the subject of patents cannot replace consideration of the distinctive characteristics of DNA.”

    31 March 2010
    Judge Rules DNA is Unique Because it Carries Functional Information
    Association for Molecular Pathology v. U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, __ F.Supp.2d __ (S.D.N.Y. 2010):

    Posted by PG | May 24, 2010, 10:56 pm
  5. PG, ironically enough you are legally allowed to patent code.

    Such as software code for example.

    That is microsoft has a patent on the code for windows 7. If I wanted to have a windows 7, and ripped their code, they would sue me [and rightly so]

    Because you see PG, software codes are actually designed, hence the person who designed it gets patent rights. Seeing as nobody designed DNA, then I don’t think we should be able to patent DNA sequences.

    Sure I suppose you could say the scientists designed the individual sequence, but to patent that would be the equivilant of a software programmer patenting 1 and 0 seeing as I’m willing to bet a lot of those sequences occur in nature.

    That is if a DNA sequence is patented than it is later found that I have that particular sequence does that mean they get to sue me?

    Posted by cptpineapple | May 24, 2010, 11:14 pm
  6. I don’t really know how to address the legal issues concerning patenting DNA sequences, so I didn’t address them. I would suppose that the kind of organism that would be most affected would be one that had been designed as “single use.” That is, an organism that does a valuable job but doesn’t reproduce — much like strains of food crops that are infertile but produce higher than “natural” yields, longer shelf life, etc.

    If I’m right about that, then a lot of the patent law is already on the books.

    Posted by hambydammit | May 25, 2010, 8:44 am
  7. I think this just about sums up the real scope of this experiment…

    Jim Collins
    “This is an important advance in our ability to re-engineer organisms, not make new life from scratch. Frankly, scientists don’t know enough about biology to create life. Although the Human Genome Project has expanded the parts list for cells, there is no instruction manual for putting them together to produce a living cell. It is like trying to assemble an operational jumbo jet from its parts list — impossible. Although some of us in synthetic biology have delusions of grandeur, our goals are much more modest.”
    http://www.nature.com/news/2010/100520/full/news.2010.255.html

    I know I am beginning to sound like a broken record, but even evolutionary biologists are perplexed to account for the instructions (Information) necessary to put all those parts together…

    Today, Scientist use a top down strategy of using the most sophisticated computers and programs to encode a extremely small bit of information in the worlds most simplist viral genome to just replicate it,

    and yet,

    Atheists continue to persist that a bottom up strategy of random chemicals could achieve far greater results of producing entire living cells, with just a little time and chance…

    It brings back Fredrick Hoyles analogy of a tornado sweeping through a junkyard to create a fully functional jumbo jet…

    Until Scientists can evidence it occurring by random chemicals and not through intelligent design,

    DNA is proof of design…

    .

    Posted by PG | May 25, 2010, 12:03 pm
  8. I think a major ethical concern you seemed to have left out in bio engineering is patents.
    That is if such and such DNA sequence that can lead to major benefits and is then patented, then the application of the sequence is limited and it would cost large sums of money reproduce due to the patent dues and be reduced production where as if it was public domain, it could get out faster, cheaper, and in larger quantities.

    Yeah, this is a pretty big one. For something on as small a scale as was done, it’s not such an issue – but patent laws are going to cause some real problems when this kind of biotechnology takes off (as it already is in the agricultural industry).

    There’s *tons* of ethical issues surrounding biotechnology, though. It’s crazy to think that we’re busy bickering about whether or not creationism needs equal time in the classroom when we are peering into new frontiers of science that really need some heavyweight philosophical insight. Nevermind terrorists or guerrilla outfits – what about wealthy nation states? They’re going to want to weaponize biotechnology too. What about mega-corporate conglomerates? If Google can do this, Mansanto can do it too, and they’re not nearly as scrupulous. Who wants to live in the era of patented epidemic pathogens designed to target pests, with the designers not terribly concerned about their creation doing something unexpected?

    You can’t stop science – you can only make it dangerous for yourself. Biotechnology isn’t really something we can afford to go that route with.

    Posted by Kevin R Brown | May 25, 2010, 3:17 pm
  9. KB, Alison, the thing is, we’ve already got a ton of bio-engineering, and we’ve already “gone this route.” Sure, this is a new technology, but it’s not opening any doors that haven’t already been opened before. As Kevin and I both noted, companies like Monsanto have already patented biological organisms. That’s all these synthetic organisms are — biological organisms. It’s just about how they were created.

    Posted by hambydammit | May 25, 2010, 4:39 pm
  10. Sure, this is a new technology, but it’s not opening any doors that haven’t already been opened before.

    Yeah, I know – I’m not being a doomsayer or anything, I’m just saying that there isn’t really (that I can hear) the sort of realistic conversation about this technology that I think there should be. Making BT corn is different than playing around with pathological bacteria from a philosophical / ethical standpoint because even if it’s the same principal, the organisms behave much differently. You can’t really turn corn into a lethal, highly contagious parasite (well, not in our current state, anyway) – but you sure *can* do that with bacteria & viruses (granted, we’re probably still quite a few years away from doing anything with things as small as viruses). If Monsanto has no problems making terminator seeds & ’round-up ready’ plants, they’ll probably have no problems with making hunter-killer pest parasites when it becomes viable.

    That’s not to say that it’s even necessarily a bad thing to create that sort of anti-pest technology, but we at least need to have a conversation about it & it’s impact / implications.

    Posted by Kevin R Brown | May 25, 2010, 9:47 pm
  11. but you sure *can* do that with bacteria & viruses (granted, we’re probably still quite a few years away from doing anything with things as small as viruses).

    Let me consult an expert before I answer this because I don’t know how much genetic manipulation we can do with viruses.

    I can say with certainty that without synthetic DNA, we can do quite a lot with bacteria. We’ve been doing it for years. Synthesized DNA represents a more versatile and direct route to genetic manipulation at the bacterial level. It’s hardly the only way to create super-bugs. Remember, Kevin, that DNA is DNA, regardless of what kind of critter it’s in. When biologists want to alter a gene, they just need to find a critter with a stretch of DNA that will do the trick, extract that segment, and graft it onto a new critter. (That’s how they make things like cold-resistant corn. Remember?) In theory, the segment doesn’t even have to be functional in the original bug. It just needs to be the right sequence.

    Having said all that, I do agree with you that there is potential for nastiness in this technology, and a certain amount of oversight is a good idea. The problem is that we don’t have a good history of letting scientists oversee scientists, and our history of politicians policing scientists is… um… troubling.

    Most politicians have two things going against them when it comes to this sort of thing — their ignorance and their constituencies. The debate over embryonic stem cell research is all you need to look at. There are simply no viable moral debates that need to be addressed, yet we had to endure eight years of pontification on the ethics of it all.

    Posted by hambydammit | May 26, 2010, 9:43 am

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