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Biotech Science

Synthetic DNA About To Yield New Life Forms 240

Posted by kdawson
from the what-could-possibly-go-wrong dept.
mlimber sends along a Washington Post story about the immanence of completely artificial life: "The cobbling together of life from synthetic DNA, scientists and philosophers agree, will be a watershed event, blurring the line between biological and artificial — and forcing a rethinking of what it means for a thing to be alive... Some experts are worried that a few maverick companies are already gaining monopoly control over the core 'operating system' for artificial life and are poised to become the Microsofts of synthetic biology. That could stifle competition, they say, and place enormous power in a few people's hands."
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Synthetic DNA About To Yield New Life Forms

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  • by timeOday (582209) on Tuesday December 18, 2007 @02:34AM (#21735728)
    Anything still based on DNA is re-using nature's building blocks. It's like in Photoshop, using the clone tool vs. drawing a photorealistic texture freehand - there's a huge difference. Nature has been searching the space of DNA recombinations for a long time.
  • Oh come on... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by PieSquared (867490) <isosceles2006NO@SPAMgmail.com> on Tuesday December 18, 2007 @02:37AM (#21735750)
    How exactly does this blur the boundaries of life? I could see some people questioning if a virus was really alive, but adding more things like viruses wouldn't *further* blur the line, and anything as complex as bacteria would be life regardless of if they were natural or not.

    I suppose if you let religion define "life" for you this might cause trouble, but definitions shouldn't be the job of religion.
  • by MillionthMonkey (240664) on Tuesday December 18, 2007 @03:22AM (#21736054)
    We can probably hit maxima that would be outcompeted in nature in a second.

    That depends on your definition of "maxima".

    Even with survival constraints as the basis for a successful design, it can't be denied that an intelligent designer could have come up with much better designs than the ones you see. Attributing evolutionary designs to an intelligent being is practically an insult when you look at some of the shoddy work evolution has come up with. Our testicles, for example, hang from our undersides dangerously exposed, just because some protein denatures at core body temperatures. Apparently something needs to be redesigned that can't be made to work better with slow incremental improvements. Evolution's fix: make them hurt like hell when struck so you learn not to mess with them. A Microsoft-style hack. If we threw a bunch of supercomputers at the problem we might come up with a completely different protein design that would allow reproduction with undescended testicles.

    Disregarding survival constraints as a parameter, a world of possibilities opens up. There is nothing in physics or chemistry that prevents the existence of almost any organism you can imagine, so long as fundamental physical constraints are adhered to such as conservation of energy, rising entropy, etc. I'd like an animal with wheels that I can drive to work, with chlorophyll in its skin so I don't have to feed it. Maybe it can sun itself on the roof while I'm at meetings, and ooze a delicious health drink from a special orifice so I can catch dinner on the way home. (Don't spit up your milk laughing, it's quite possible.) A creature like that would go extinct pretty quickly but it would sure be convenient to have one, and no law of nature prevents such a thing from existing.
  • by Plutonite (999141) on Tuesday December 18, 2007 @03:55AM (#21736218)

    Our testicles, for example, hang from our undersides dangerously exposed, just because some protein denatures at core body temperatures. Apparently something needs to be redesigned
    Please speak for yourself, I like my testicles where they are thankyouverymuch. You might at well argue that we should have our genitals protectively hidden deep back in our throats and that we inseminate the females by spurting out the damn seed while we french kiss. or something. Wait, that was awful, sorry.

    While there is probably a lot that can be improved in the engineering of human bodies, I find it slightly disheartening that after thousands of years of learning we are still unable to create a single complex living cell without help from nature. When we do, it will be the greatest feat of engineering ever, and I will party like hell.
  • Re:Oh come on... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by feepness (543479) on Tuesday December 18, 2007 @04:01AM (#21736248) Homepage

    Pretty much every definition of life I've ever seen included reproduction. I don't recall ever seeing tractors and airplanes reproduce.
    Maybe human beings are tractors way of reproducing.
  • vaporware (Score:4, Insightful)

    by graft (556969) on Tuesday December 18, 2007 @04:10AM (#21736292) Homepage
    It should be pointed out that the technology described is largely fictitious. The best labs haven't even managed to create a single artificial cell, and those technologies ALL use cobbled-together bits stolen from other lifeforms - nothing truly from scratch. There are a few good examples of proteins being engineered to specific functions (mostly DNA binding specificity), but we're ages away from being able to say, "Okay, I want to synthesize a protein that does this random function; here's how I would do it." And as for more complex lifeforms? Forget it. We don't even understand the development process of any multicellular organism in any detail, never mind being able to manufacture our own. So, on the whole, I think this story is akin to worrying about who is going to get control of, say, shrink-ray technology. Scary when it happens, but it ain't happening any time soon.
  • by mcrbids (148650) on Tuesday December 18, 2007 @05:32AM (#21736632) Journal
    Our testicles, for example, hang from our undersides dangerously exposed, just because some protein denatures at core body temperatures. Apparently something needs to be redesigned that can't be made to work better with slow incremental improvements. Evolution's fix: make them hurt like hell when struck so you learn not to mess with them. A Microsoft-style hack. If we threw a bunch of supercomputers at the problem we might come up with a completely different protein design that would allow reproduction with undescended testicles.

    Which explains the survivability of so much hackish, clumsy, but real-working software. See, software, or life organisms persist to the degree that they solve real-world problems. How "elegant" the solution is is rather secondary. Often, real-world problems are ugly, pseudo-random nasty problems that don't have a clear, simple, ivory tower style solution. I maintain a large, complex, beautiful software codebase that has the ugliest, most horrible hack of a pile of regex and scripting as its very center. The nasty hacks have been amazingly stable for years now, and work well, even if they are a serious pain to edit during the (very rare) need to edit.

    It's carefully sandboxed - the ugly part sits in a single file that is itself wrapped inside a handler function, so the "pretty" part of the codebase is *never* contaminated by the ugly, "written in a day or two" hack that got the whole shebang started.

    Sometimes, no matter how much you kick and scream, you have several screens of ugly case statements littered with random function calls, and you end up with a great big ball of mud [laputan.org].

    Guess what!?!?! Look in the mirror - YOU ARE A GREAT BIG BALL OF MUD. Your body is a complex set of unclear, un-abstracted dependencies without clear boundaries. For example, we've long thought of the pancreas as a key component of blood sugar control. But recent research shows that the bones (yes, bones!) of the body also contribute to positive blood-sugar control [nytimes.com]. As a borderline type-II diabetic, I pay attention to things like this...

    Millions of years of evolution (or a few years of hard work by a half-drunk God) have resulted in your body, which is a festering pile of weird dependencies. For example, if you don't get exposed to enough dirt as a baby, you end up with asthma [bbc.co.uk].

    If Microsoft's software is truly evolutionary in nature, that would explain its dominance in today's marketplace - it's well adapted to survive in the software environment we've seen so far, and like the dinosaurs, it will only be beaten back when the basic environment changes. (which it is)

    Get used to the world of "dirty" evolutionary solutions - it's the basic building block of life itself!
  • Defining Life (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Doc Ruby (173196) on Tuesday December 18, 2007 @07:48AM (#21737200) Homepage Journal
    "Life" is a system that transduces energy to maintain local entropy reductions that perpetuate its operation: homeostasis. Recognizable life replicates itself, or is replicated, from identical or nearly identical instances: reproduction.

    FWIW, "intelligence" is an information model of the physical world at least minimally accurate and at least minimally inclusive (perhaps solely at initialization) of new information that it adds to itself, and that includes representation of itself in its model.

Life. Don't talk to me about life. - Marvin the Paranoid Anroid

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