Four days ago scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute, a private institute for gene research, announced that they have managed to create life from scratch! A synthetic cell was created that started its life on a computer screen. The resulting genome was put into a bacterium and took over, changing the bacterium to its own specifications. The resulting cell was called Synthia. All that in itself would raise enough ethical questions. Some have declared these new findings as an opening of Pandora’s box and wish it to never have happened, while others believe it to be the start of a new era in genetics and as a breakthrough in and for human history. The synthetic cell can lead to new possibilities like disease prevention and new cures, but also to ethical nightmares like made-to-order babies or clones and therefore to the question what a single life is actually worth?
But although many scientists and philosophers are concerned with these questions, those scientists working on largely similar ideas in genetics have problems with the new findings on an entirely different level. They do not argue about the good and the bad possibilities and their next research steps. They argue about who has the rights to what. The J. Craig Venter Institute is a private institute founded by Craig Venter. It is not part of any university and does not have state funding. Dr. Venter has started the process to patent his findings. The process of creating artificial life and the use of that life shall remain part of his institute.
Professor Sir John Sulton openly protests against these patents. Sulton won the Nobel prize for sequencing the human genome and already fought with Venter ten years ago since the latter attempted to do the same in his private institute. Sulton is now afraid that Venter will have a monopoly on artificial life. Since he opposes the research into artificial life it would be logical to oppose the patenting on ethical grounds in the hope to stop it altogether. But Sulton’s argument merely is that the broad patenting would prevent new research into genetics and would close the road of that branch of genetics for young scientists. In today’s scheme of things the worries about monopolizing research seem to be legitimate, but it still makes me wonder where modern science is going?
For the newest articles in the timesonline about Venter and his research, click here.
Experimental Philosophy of Science
By Paul E. Griffiths and Karola Stolz, University of Exeter, University of Sydney
Vol. 3, March 2008