What is life? A strange – perhaps obtuse – question. But the answer has profound consequences for how we as a society come to grips with novel biotechnologies.
Today, still at the dawn of the much-hyped “gene age,” the “biological century,” and the “digital revolution,” we stand in the midst of a mutation in the very concept of life.
Enter Craig Venter. Just a few days ago, the celebrity scientist-entrepreneur stood in front of an audience at Trinity College Dublin, where he delivered a lecture on the question “what is life?” Venter proposed the following hypothesis:
All living cells that we know of on this planet are 'DNA software'-driven biological machines comprised of hundreds of thousands of protein robots, coded for by the DNA, that carry out precise functions.
Code, software, hardware – these terms are, of course, digital and computational metaphors. This shouldn’t be surprising, given the prominence of the digital in contemporary consciousness. Yet, if digital metaphors abound, it is useful to ask just what they mean, and how they encourage us to think about living organisms.
Life as “DNA software” and “synthetic life” are two of Venter’s favorite phrases. Like many other synthetic biologists, he thinks of life as software and hardware, and even of DNA as containing life. A reductionist negligence comes with such digital metaphors: they incline us to consider the hardware – the cell – as secondary, and they leave the environment completely out of the picture. But life, at least as we know it, cannot and does not exist absent both conditions being in place. Computational metaphors can be seriously misleading.
Similar issues surround the idea of “synthetic life.” Back in 2010, when Venter’s team transplanted a manufactured DNA sequence into a stripped-down E. coli cell, prompting that cell to start producing proteins based on the new DNA, Venter hailed the concoction as the first “synthetic organism.” While he emphasized that the cell’s parent was “a computer,” he also noted, more cautiously, “We didn’t create life from scratch.”
But now, it seems, Venter has set his sights on just this achievement. In his recent lecture, he suggested that “synthetic life” is coming, hopefully “this year.”
There’s a peculiar hubris to the idea of creating life in a lab, a hubris that ignores just how subservient “synthetic biology” is to the natural, biological world. Even if Venter manages to produce a cell with a new DNA sequence, calling it “synthetic” or “artificial” life ignores the basic biological conditions that make this possible: natural cellular “hardware,” natural DNA sequences that have evolved over billions of years and that all genetic engineering of necessity plagiarizes, and environmental conditions that allow any such cell to live.
In short, even if Venter succeeds in his latest project, he certainly won’t have created life. At best, he will have performed a high-level genetic engineering exercise – dangerous, yes, but life-creation, no.
He might not succeed. A number of scientists have suggested that the whole field might be based on “bad theory” and that it has been deceived by its own enchantment with problematic engineering metaphors. Molecular biologist Stuart Newman, in an article co-written with activist Eric Hoffman, notes:
Genome-driven cell engineering deliberately ignores many of the features of cells and organisms that have emerged from the broad area of systems biology… including recognition of nonlinear responses to small internal or external variations, causality at multiple spatial and temporal scales, many-to-many mapping between genotypes and phenotypes, and the emerging field of epigenomics, which looks at how DNA interacts with its cellular and external environment.
The whole economy of promises about the miracles of synthetic biology might be based around faulty models of life, prompted by dubious metaphors from computing and engineering.
But none of this seems to sway Venter’s confidence. Last week, he proposed a plan for a final integration of the biological and the digital, a converter that will transform biological information into digital information. New developments like the test of the first DNA laser printer make the idea conceptually promising, but challenges abound.
Here, the digital metaphor can mislead yet again. We’ve become so captivated as a culture by sleek, cool, information technologies, that we may come to treat the project of engineering biology with the same cavalier attitude as we do the iPhone. But the potential for problems with Venter’s project are of a different magnitude.
Proponents of such a technology envision an abundance of potentially beneficial applications. But making biology easier to engineer and DNA sequences easier for so-called ‘biohackers’ to create also makes it easier to print, email, and download synthetic viral DNA. Such technologies make it simple to release novel organisms into the environment without possible assessment of the consequences of doing so. If we are to move forward here, strong oversight and democratic governance will be needed.
Whether or not these grand plans unfold as predicted, we should be sure we aren’t tangled in bad metaphors that dupe us into swallowing hyperbolic promises or the bad theory that comes with them.
Previously on Biopolitical Times:
Posted in Media Coverage, Sequencing & Genomics, Synthetic Biology
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