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Science in the News: October 11

In his 2012 TED talk, Mexican academic Juan Enriquez claims, “I think we’re transitioning into a Homo evolutis that, for better or worse, is not just a hominid that is conscious of his or her environment; it is a hominid that’s beginning to directly and deliberately control the evolution of its own species, of bacteria, of plants, of animals. I think that that’s a [major] change: that your grandkids or your great-grandkids may be a species very different from you.”

Guided evolution is a scary thought, but it is not new. For thousands of years, humans have diligently domesticated animals, plants and even microbes such as yeast to perform laborious tasks, be primary food sources and serve as companions. However, we have reached a stage in our technological development where we can make significant changes to life at the cellular and genetic levels.

Synthetic biology is the name of the field at the heart of such innovation. For instance, last year a research paper was published about the creation of medusoids – synthetic jellyfish created by layering rat heart cells on a silicon substrate shaped like a simple jellyfish. As the cells contract, the medusoids beat and swim as a jellyfish does!

Another fascinating creation is the spider-goat, a goat that produces spider silk protein in its milk because of the insertion of a specific spider gene.

“We already know that we can produce spider silk that’s good enough to be used in ligament repair,” said Randy Lewis, the Utah State University scientist in charge of this program. Clearly this technology has medical implications for humans, but does Spiderman lie a few short steps down the line?

Humanity has made significant progress tinkering at the microscopic level. Since 2008, protocell researchers have been designing living cells made from scratch, the goal of which is to design entirely new forms of life. Craig Venter’s research team has taken this science the farthest: in 2010 they built entirely synthetic DNA in imitation of a species of bacteria. With just a computer and four chemicals, the team created the first synthetic life form. Venter explains that creation on this level is possible because “our genetic code is our software” and thus can be altered just like computer software.

His goals for the technology are to design algae that efficiently capture carbon dioxide to produce fuel or make food substances. He claims that “we can shorten the process for making the flu vaccine each year by 99%” and says the next rung up the ladder of creation is to make synthetic single-cell eukaryotes like yeast, which have nuclei unlike bacteria. With this technology, humanity possesses not only the ability to guide life’s evolution but also to create life from scratch and make these synthetic organisms the workhorses of humanity.

Venter has of course been accused of playing God, which he contested in a BBC interview, saying, “That’s a term that comes up every time there is a new medical or scientific breakthrough associated with biology…this is the next stage in our understanding, and it’s a baby step in our understanding of how life ultimately works.”

Juan Enriquez’ Homo evolutis already exists, though we have not yet begun to alter our own genetic code. We have the technology to design humans with our own intelligence, but we have yet to take the plunge.

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