IT IS NOT the creation of a new life form, exactly. It does not represent a radical break with anything that biologists have done before. A panel of clergy and bioethicists convened especially to discuss it found nothing to be alarmed about -- and yet the project launched this week at the Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives in Rockville should cause both scientists and policymakers to pause and think. Directed by pioneering geneticist J. Craig Venter and Nobel laureate Hamilton O. Smith, scientists will remove all of the genetic material from M. gentilatum, a tiny microbe, and replace it with artificial genetic material made in a laboratory. While scientists have inserted genes into organisms before, they have never tried to insert so many at once. The result will be, in effect, a living thing that is at least partially a human creation.
This experiment raises two sets of issues. The first is regulatory. If they succeed in inserting a simple string of genetic code, scientists could eventually insert a more complex string. As a result, they could, for example, create a microbe able to break down carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and thus end the greenhouse effect; that would be good. They could also create a new virus or bacteria that could become a biological weapon; that would be bad. Yet despite the danger of abuse, this kind of research is taking place within what bioethicist Arthur Caplan calls a "regulatory vacuum." Although Mr. Venter and Mr. Smith have gone out of their way to think about the security implications of their project, and have said they will not publish anything that could be used by terrorists, they are doing so voluntarily. Much as scientists dislike the prospect, it may be time for professional associations and politicians to start discussing whether biologists should be subjected to the same kinds of security requirements that physicists and some computer scientists have long lived with. No one wants to hamper the free exchange of scientific information, but discussing sensible limits now might prevent more draconian rules from being imposed by an anxious public later.
The same is true of laboratory regulation. Mr. Venter and Mr. Smith have said that their "new" organism will be unable to survive outside a petri dish. But no rules prevent other, less responsible scientists from conducting similar experiments in less secure conditions -- and perhaps allowing a "new" bug to escape through a ventilation shaft. Although the danger of this happening is probably exaggerated, better to debate and deal with it during the early research, rather than later.
The second set of issues this experiment raises are philosophical: Should human beings try to create new forms of life? Again, while this stage of the experiment does not exactly pose that challenge, the question might arise in a more radical form in a few years. The appearance of Dolly the sheep, the first cloned mammal, led to shock, surprise and a counter-reaction, precisely because the many small experiments that led to her creation had never attracted much notice. If more attention had been drawn to the technological advances along the way, the public might have been better informed and its reaction more reasonable. It is the responsibility of scientists to educate the public about new research -- and the responsibility of religious groups, philosophers and citizens to listen to them and think about it.