Patton Oswalt had said something in his 2007 comedy album Werewolves & Lollipops that was very profound. "We're Science: We're all about coulda, not shoulda."
His statement has never been more right than right now. Scientists have created new life by creating a brand new DNA strand. As to what purpose science created this? Seemingly just to make it. California researchers have created the first organism whose genetic code is made up of six letters instead of the standard four. This means that this organism is the first of its kind to be created with completely artificial genetic material.
Let’s discuss the “coulda” part of the equation. As you probably studied in high school science, DNA is made comprised of markers known as A, T, C and G. The letters stand for the four nucleotides in DNA, adenine, thymine, cytosine and guanine. However, states the New York Times, scientists headquartered at the Scripps Research Institute decided to change up the status quo and added a a single pair of artificial “X” and “Y” nucleotides to an E.Coli strain’s genetic code. The experiment has been a success – the strain is reproducing like a normal strain and passing on the artificial “X” and “Y” pair to the offspring.
Scripps chemist Floyd Romesberg told the New York Times that adding letters to the genetic code will allow researchers to “write more words and tell more stories.” However, while the scientists at Scripps are thrilled, not everyone out in the science world sees the experiement as a good thing. One such organization is the ETC Group, a Canadian advocacy organization. They told the newspaper that “the arrival of this unprecedented ‘alien’ life form could in time have far-reaching ethical, legal and regulatory implications.”
The scientists are still experimenting with the strain’s genetic code, which leads to the “shoulda” portion. Should the scientists even be doing this? There is a lot of good a questioning attitude can bring to society. Most of our medicines and advancements have come about because people have asked the tough questions. But why are scientists trying to change genetic code? There could be some good applications, like changing faulty DNA to correct defects in children before they’re born, but just think about the illegal things that could be done.
When The Verge covered this story, the Oswalt quote was mentioned a lot as well as the meme featuring Ian Malcolm (as played by Jeff Goldblum) from Jurassic Park saying his classic line, “Life finds a way.” Indeed, changing genetic code is how the scientists in that fictional story created their dinosaurs. Could this kind of technology lead someone to create genetically-advanced or genetically-customized animals? Or even deeper, could the experiment be the foundation for true transhumanism–creating customized, stylized and completely artificial humans? This sounds like a maniacal rant, but it’s hard not to pull a Henny Penny when people are creating new DNA strands.
What do you think about this? Is there a reason to be alarmed or is this actually really cool? Talk about it in the comments section below.
Image: net_efekt (Flickr Creative Commons)