Genome Transplants and the Philosopher’s Stone

From the Guardian: First genome transplant turns one species into another

Scientists have converted an organism into an entirely different species by performing the world’s first genome transplant, a breakthrough that paves the way for the creation of synthetic forms of life.

The team, led by Craig Venter, the man who raced to sequence the human genome, wants to build new microbes to produce environmentally friendly fuels.

The group’s study, details of which were revealed in the US journal Science yesterday, proves it is possible to transplant a complete set of genetic instructions into an organism, in effect turning it into the same species the DNA was taken from.

OK. But why? Well, this is 2009. Only one answer seems likely: energy! Getting biofuels from bacteria is the modern equivalent of turning lead into gold:

The team is focusing on creating micro-organisms which produce green fuels as natural waste products. “One of the goals we have is trying to see if we could design cells to manufacture new types of fuel to break our dependency on oil and coal and try to do something about carbon dioxide,” Dr Venter said. “We look forward to trying to have the first fuels from genetically modified and even synthetic organisms, certainly within the decade.”

Controversial stuff, for sure. Luckily, ethicists were on the scene….

Dr Venter’s team commissioned an 18-month study into the bioethics of their research, which gave strong approval but echoed concerns about the dangers.

Ah, cautious, hand-wringing approval. What else is an ethicist for, after all?

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About Chris MacDonald

I'm a philosopher who teaches at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto, Canada. Most of my scholarly research is on business ethics and healthcare ethics.
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