The Powers of a Synthetic Cell

    A new cell has been made. This cell is not a normal cell- it is controlled by man-made genetic instructions. Created at a cost of 40 million dollars, the experimental one cell organism, which can reproduce, opens the way to the manipulation of life on a previously unattainable scale. Biologist Christopher Voigt at the University of California, San Francisco, thinks that the technique used to make the cell would be applied to all the most important industrial bacteria. Many companies are taking advantage of synthetic biology, which combines chemistry, computer science, molecular biology, genetics and cell biology to breed industrial life forms that can secrete fuels, vaccines or other commercial products. Also, this strategy can be used to make algae that convert carbon dioxide into petrol or diesel through photosynthesis. At the moment, the plants photosynthesise to form sugar, which is later on transformed into fuel by engineered bugs of one sort or another. Using algae to replace the plants would cut out the middleman.

    However, there are the downsides too. People who misuse the technology and use it to create or bring back past diseases are threats to the world. In 2002, a team of researchers made short sequences of synthetic DNA strands and pasted them together to form a functional poliovirus. When this extreme genetic engineering feat was announced to the world, the team was deemed as irresponsible and their findings could potentially show terrorists how to make a bio-weapon. In another case, efforts to reconstruct the 1918 flu virus began. The virus had killed between 20 and 50 million people, a number higher than the death toll in World War I. In 1997, Dr. Jeffrey Taubenberger of the US Armed Forces recovered and sequenced fragments of the viral RNA from preserved tissues of the 1918 victims buried in Alaskan permafrost. Eight years later, the lethal virus had been resurrected. This was exactly like what happened in Jurassic Park, where dinosaurs were brought back to life.

    Synthesising cells to form organisms is inhumane to some. They argue that the experiment will not always work out the right way and sometimes, the product will be different from what is planned. For example, if scientists attempt to generate humans, but the result is somebody with four arms, will they kill it? Killing it would be morally wrong, they say. If they do not execute it, what will be of the created organism? A group based in Canada have called for a moratorium on synthetic biology, and will only continue when a decision is made.

    The synthetic cell can be used either positively or negatively. It is powerful- if used positively, will allow modern technology to advance, but will cause serious damage if misused.


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Hi guys, I'm a student in Singapore, and this are some thoughts and essays I have written over the years.