Frankenstein’s bacterium: It’s Alive!

The monster’s brain was replaced with that of another and he did its bidding, not his own. The “new” bacterium recently conceived in the laboratory doesn’t think like its host but is chemically a slave to a manufactured DNA “brain”. And soon, it will be infinitely programmable.

So what does this mean for you? That all depends.

Venter’s claim is that bacteria could be created to soak up carbon dioxide, which could help in the fight against global warming. Most people would agree that’s a good thing. New life-saving drugs could also be artificially created – a good thing as well. However, artificially-created bacteria could also be used to make things like biological weapons.

The sky’s the limit, actually, according to bioethics expert Pat Mooney. He claims that Venter has created a “chassis on which you could build almost anything. It could be a contribution to humanity such as new drugs or a huge threat to humanity such as bio-weapons.”

Apparently this five year project has been partially financed by the US Department of Energy in the quest for a new environmentally friendly fuel. That seems to be a good thing, right? And of course the US Gov would never explore the bio-weapons potential of such a tool. Never!

“We are going from reading our genetic code to the ability to write it. That gives us the hypothetical ability to do things never contemplated before,” Venter said.

Who owns DNA? Venter thinks he should, and has applied for a patent for his “Synthia” (c) bacterium. Get ready for a new kind of ethical debate started many years ago in Mary Shelley’s scary fiction likely headed toward nano-fact on a global scale.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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