Why We Will Be Able To Build A Synthetic Dragon In Our Lifetime, Why It Is Okay

Posted by on August 16th, 2011

A few months ago the world was shocked to discover that a US company had designed and manufactured the world’s first synthetic living cell. The researchers had written the genetic code on a computer and then, through the aid of some very helpful yeast, assembled a fully man made strand of DNA that was later injected into a living cell. A few moments later, the cell reproduced creating the first fully artificial life form.

What happened was that, for the first time in human history, genes were written in a computer program and a living synthetic organism was manufactured by a corporation.   Let’s speculate what a few years might do to this basic technology.

Its the morning after Festivus and little Charlie Darwin has received, under the Aluminium Pole,  what he wanted most:  Dr Moreau’s  do-it-yourself Creature Lab. The small box contains a tiny thumb drive and an  authentication code.    He runs upstairs to install the  software and logs in to the Creative Creatures’ website. Within the kid friendly interface, Charlie designs and previews his creation. Using a GUI full of bubbly shapes and pastel colors  he hacks away at designing his own creature.  He adds teeth and enlarges the fangs.   The texture palette includes scales which he selects  and colors them  dark green with purple flakes. When Charlie is happy with the wings  and tail, he can’t contain his excitement as he clicks CREATE!

Slowly a three dimensional creature gets rendered and displayed.  It is a  evil looking  dragon that writhes  and slither’s on the screen . Charlie can spin it and look at it doing several preprogrammed activities like growling and pouncing. Once he is satisfied he clicks  ORDER only to find that he needs a parents receipt code to do so. “Aww Man! Daaaaaaad!,” he yells as he races downstairs to fetch his father. Little Judy pops in and gives a little yelp of joy and starts playing with the mouse. She smiles at the screen and gets distracted by a passing ladybug which she chases out of the room.

The father, Erasmus, sits down, looks at the rendering and frowns  but goes on with the ordering procedure. “Order Confirmed! Delivery estimated: 45 Days. An email has been sent to your account,” is displayed on the  screen. A month and a half  goes by and finally on a glorious Saturday morning Charlie runs downstairs to receive the delivery from Created Creatures Inc.

The doorbell wakes up Erasmus and he struggles to sign the deliveryman’s pad and hand over a tip. As he does so he thinks for a second of the potential horror within the crate.  Was it right messing with nature like this? Was this creature supposed to live at all? What does life mean when a thing like this can be created by a 10 year old?  Was he playing God?  He dismisses these thoughts quickly and says to himself “all the kids have them, they are perfectly safe; It will be alright”.

Erasmus has not completed his thought when he heard his son cry out in pain. Liquid fear shoots into his bloodstream.

Get the rest AFTER THE JUMP…

He turns to see what manner of  horrible abomination could produce such a reaction in his son. There, within the half opened travel crate  stands , in four legs, a living and breathing, terrier sized, pink and purple, fluffy little Unicorn with large blue eyes and a perfect miniature soft tipped horn and sparkly  hooves. Little Judy has climbed downstairs to see what all the ruckus is about.  Absolute surprise and joy is on  Judy’s face as she says, “It’s perfect! Just like the one I made on Charlie’s computer, Daddy can I keep it, pleeeese?”

Sounds like Science Fiction but researchers at J. Craig Venter Institute did just that with the first synthetic organism in May of last year.  Today the basic language and syntax of the genetic code are almost completely understood. The only thing that remains is the deciphering of the content of the code, what the words mean;  to fully discover what each of the different genes do to the final organism and how they can be modified.  This work is ongoing and will be completed in the near future.  Today humans can “program” in  the base 4 DNA code as easily as they can in base 2 Binary  or Hexadecimal assembly Language.  The two big advances are the ability of assembling the written code into a living strand of DNA and the injection of it into a new cell.  This is done with the aid of chemical bases(GATC)  fed into a biological system which includes living yeast bacteria which take  the bits as it were and assemble it into bytes and words and eventually into complete instruction sets or genes. Finally the injection allows the Synthetic DNA to be incorporated into the nucleus of  a blank cell. Eventually this cell can be grown into whole organisms. As you see, the scenario described above could be just around the corner.

If it seems like the biological knowledge and information technology have merged it’s because they have. This merger is the up and coming field of Bioinformatics and it’s the stuff of Science Fiction and Horror films. It reminds me of the words of Mary Shelley’s  Dr Frankenstein:

“With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.”

We stand as a civilization on this same spot.  The creature just opened its eyes, what we do next is crucial. Do we cherish and value our creations or do we shun them and turn them against us. While some will oppose genetic engineering and call it unnatural, I think it is inevitable.  Humans have this power of creation built in.  It is this which has kept our children  fed and warm for tens of thousands of years.  It is this what has made our species emerge from the forests and  propelled us and our creations beyond the edge of the realm of our home Star. It is a power that can further survival or insure our destruction. Ultimately, like Roddenberry,  I like to think that humanity will thrive because of technology and not in spite of it.  

But then again, I always rooted for the Monster…

One Response to “Why We Will Be Able To Build A Synthetic Dragon In Our Lifetime, Why It Is Okay”

  1. Tensor Says:

    As an update I want to share some of the reaction from TWiT’s Futures in Biotech host and all around expert in Bioinformatics and Genetics  : 
    ” It was a great read. The process by which the genome was replaced is just tech details, the fact is that synthetic tailored organisms will sure be available soon. I can buy insect cells that have been tailored to express recombinant proteins with human glycosylation. There is a ton of really weird anthropomorphic genetic craziness!”

    Genetic Craziness is what we are all about! Thanks Dr Pelletier for your kind comments and keep up with your excellent work.  Be sure to listen to him and his guests on Futures in Biotech on Twit, great show.