“Artificial life” postponed for 3-10 years

Instead of being mere months away from creating a synthetic organism, yesterday’s AP news article predicts creation of a synthetic organism occuring in a more comfortably distant 3-10 years. Two aspects of the article caught my attention.

From the article:

Szostak is also optimistic about the next step – getting nucleotides, the building blocks of DNA, to form a working genetic system.

His idea is that once the container is made, if scientists add nucleotides in the right proportions, then Darwinian evolution could simply take over.

“We aren’t smart enough to design things, we just let evolution do the hard work and then we figure out what happened,” Szostak said. [bold added]

 In what sense is Darwinian evolution a theory which pertains to non-organisms — that is, to these vesicles laced with nucleotides?  


The article concludes:

Bedau said there are legitimate worries about creating life that could “run amok,” but there are ways of addressing it, and it will be a very long time before that is a problem.

“When these things are created, they’re going to be so weak, it’ll be a huge achievement if you can keep them alive for an hour in the lab,” he said. “But them getting out and taking over, never in our imagination could this happen.” [bold added]

Perhaps it was simply a poor choice of wording, but it is precisely this stated lack of imagination which precipitates a deep concern, and even an earnest distrust, about the safety and wisdom of these endeavors. The newly-created organism itself may be well understood; however, as a physical system, it has an open-ended potential for interactions with all the other physical systems (including other organisms) which comprise the rest of the world. To “run amok” is not simply to escape and exist outside the lab. If the organism does not interact with other systems in its environment, then it is fairly innocuous. Rather, to “run amok” is to interact with other physical systems in ways which persistently and increasingly alter those systems in significant ways. The variety and extent of interactions cannot be readily predetermined or accounted for — there are simply too many ways for physical systems to interact, and too many of them to test. Since it is not a problem that can be solved completely, there must be either a determination of what it means to adequately solve this problem or a determination that perhaps all incomplete solutions are inadequate to safely allow release of a synthetic organism.


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