A team of U.S. researchers has announced the creation of a cell controlled by completely synthetic DNA, an advance which ethicists are calling a “double edged sword.”
Announced in “Science” magazine, Dr. J. Craig Venter and a team of scientists have successfully transplanted a completely man-made set of DNA that is a copy of the DNA from a bacteria into a host cell. After the transfer, the host cell was then effectively controlled by the new DNA. The new cell is called a “synthetic cell” though only its genome is truly synthetic.
Fr. Thomas Berg, Director of the Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person, told CNA that the development “is scientifically fascinating, ethically neutral, and can be a part of something more serious.”
Dr. Venter is hopeful that the modified cell will pave the way for the creation of cells with as yet unseen genetic imprints that will be useful for manufacturing pharmaceuticals, creating alternative energy sources, and cleaning up the environment.
But Fr. Berg also warned about the unforeseen consequences of the new cells: “my fear is that there hasn’t been any sufficient thought into the potential hazards,” he said, noting that often the implications, ethical and otherwise, of such scientific developments are often the last things considered, though they are of supreme importance.
Bringing up the concept of “designing” children, Berg noted that this discovery could potentially be the “first step toward a much darker process” such as “unnaturally modified human beings.”
“Catholic ethicists certainly have to have this on their radar,” Fr. Berg added, encouraging the Catholic scholarly community to explore the issue further.
Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, president of the Italian Bishops Conference, told ANSA news agency that Venter’s work is a "further sign of intelligence, God's gift to understand creation and be able to better govern it.” He added, “on the other hand, intelligence can never be without responsibility. Any form of intelligence and any scientific acquisition ... must always be measured against the ethical dimension, which has at its heart the true dignity of every person."
“If it is used toward the good, to treat pathologies, we can only be positive” about it, Archbishop Rino Fisichella, the head of the Pontifical Academy for Life, told Italian television. But, “if it turns out not to be ... useful to respect the dignity of the person, then our judgment would change."
The discovery has prompted questions about the fabrication of artificial life and the temptation to “play God.”
“To say that Venter is playing God,” said Fr. Berg “is absolutely hyperbolic.” The synthetic cell is a “huge scientific achievement, but has not created life,” he stressed.
Dr. John Haas of the National Catholic Bioethics Center told the BBC, “they are doing significant modifications to the biological matter, but it isn't truly artificial life. Obviously when one engenders a new life form one can't be entirely certain what it's going to do, how it's going to reproduce.” “One can modify and manipulate already existing biological material. No-one [is] able to create life from scratch.”
Also adding words of caution to the debate was Dr. Carlo Bellieni, an Italian neonatal specialist. “The weight of DNA, in the end, is great and great are the expectations in genetic science,” he wrote in the Vatican's L’Osservatore Romano. “It's about uniting courage with caution: actions taken on genomes can - we hope - cure, but they are going to touch a very fragile terrain in which environment and manipulation play a role that shouldn't be undervalued.”