Thursday, May 27, 2010

Synthia: life, dont talk to me about life

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I've been following the reporting on Synthia, the so-called 'synthetic lifeform' or 'synthetic cell'. There's a lot of hype surrounding it, its creators, its promises and its dangers. Its very early days with this science and even earlier days in terms of applying the science ie technological uses - time for us to fully assess what it is and how we best employ it I hope.

Some impressive science is involved but its not really fully 'life made in the lab' because a naturally-occurring microbe, minus its genome, is used as the host and though the genome then inserted is synthetic it needed both yeast and E.coli to be used as part of the production of longer DNA sequences.

The term 'life' has been applied with little or no reference the fact that there is huge debate about what life is. There is still a challenge for scientists and philosophers to define life in unequivocal terms. Defining life is difficult —in part— because life is a process, not a pure substance. Any definition must be sufficiently broad to encompass all life with which we are familiar, and it should be sufficiently general that, with it, scientists would not miss life that may be fundamentally different from earthly life...(more).

There's been talk of a 'new industrial revolution', bringing together together biology and engineering, using 'synthetic life' to clean up oil pollution and nuclear waste, taking climate changing human carbon emissions from the air, producing biofuels and new vaccines - and even human body parts! Interesting choice of problems caused by industrial revolution(s) that will be 'solved' by purely technical means due to another industrial revolution. Purely technical 'solutions' are all too often no solution at all - remember the technical promise of an 'unsinkable' Titanic, nuclear electricity 'too cheap to meter', freedom of movement via cars tempered by congestion and pollution, nuclear weapons that would deter still ever-present wars.

Technology certainly has a role to play in solving problems - we need it but it should meet the definition of being the practical means to live decently. We should be asking ourselves what proposed technologies are and undertake a rounded assessment of technical capabilities and limitations, cost-effectiveness and impact on working lives and various systems and environments now and on into the future. We need to question technical developments at the earliest possible opportunity as opposed to regarding them as unstoppable drivers of 'progress'. Unconditional surrender to inventions and novelties would mean we had no regard for any possible social, economic and environmental consequences. We need to consider - in a systemic and systematic way - how scientific and technical change can be best harnessed for individual, community, social and environmental good - but we are currently very poor indeed at this task!