The Humanitas Project


Living in the Biotech Century

News, Resources, and Commentary

December 21, 2007



Synthetic biology—from plagiarizing nature to creating new life forms...


Synthetic DNA on the Brink of Yielding New Life Forms

by Rick Weiss



Scientists at LS9 Inc. in San Carlos, Calif., are using artificial DNA to reprogram E. coli bacteria to produce a cheap alternative fuel.

Scientists at LS9 Inc. in San Carlos, Calif., are using artificial DNA to reprogram E. coli bacteria to produce a cheap alternative fuel. (Photo Courtesy Ls9)

“It has been 50 years since scientists first created DNA in a test tube, stitching ordinary chemical ingredients together to make life's most extraordinary molecule. Until recently, however, even the most sophisticated laboratories could make only small snippets of DNA—an extra gene or two to be inserted into corn plants, for example, to help the plants ward off insects or tolerate drought.


“Now researchers are poised to cross a dramatic barrier:  the creation of life forms driven by completely artificial DNA.


“Scientists in Maryland have already built the world's first entirely handcrafted chromosome—a large looping strand of DNA made from scratch in a laboratory, containing all the instructions a microbe needs to live and reproduce.


“In the coming year, they hope to transplant it into a cell, where it is expected to ‘boot itself up,’ like software downloaded from the Internet, and cajole the waiting cell to do its bidding. And while the first synthetic chromosome is a plagiarized version of a natural one, others that code for life forms that have never existed before are already under construction....”


Washington Post – December 17, 2007




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“We can’t keep destroying embryos...there must be another way...”


Risk Taking Is in His Genes



Dr. Shinya Yamanaka of Japan and others have turned adult skin cells into human embryonic stem cells, without using an embryo. (Photo Masafumi Yamamoto for The New York Times)

“Inspiration can appear in unexpected places. Dr. Shinya Yamanaka found it while looking through a microscope at a friend’s fertility clinic.


“Dr. Yamanaka was an assistant professor of pharmacology doing research involving embryonic stem cells when he made the social call to the clinic about eight years ago. At the friend’s invitation, he looked down the microscope at one of the human embryos stored at the clinic. The glimpse changed his scientific career.


“‘When I saw the embryo, I suddenly realized there was such a small difference between it and my daughters,’ said Dr. Yamanaka, 45, a father of two and now a professor at the Institute for Integrated Cell-Material Sciences at Kyoto University. ‘I thought, we can’t keep destroying embryos for our research. There must be another way....’”


The New York Times – December 11, 2007


“Reducing political animals to mere animals...”


Reading the Mind of the Body Politic

by Alexandra Alter


The subconscious is the new frontier in politics. But is it good for democracy?




Adjusting the headset.

“During last Sunday's Republican presidential debate in Miami, Mitt Romney declared he was the only candidate who had stopped talking about universal health care and ‘actually got the job done.’ Across the country, in San Francisco, five volunteers watched the debate while wearing electrode-studded headsets that track electrical activity in the brain.


“When Mr. Romney said the words ‘got the job done,’ there was a pronounced shift in activity in their prefrontal lobes. ‘They liked what they were hearing,’ said Brad Feldman, an analyst with EmSense Corp., the company that conducted the test.


“This campaign season, the newest thing in presidential politics is neuroscience. Driven by new research that suggests monitoring voters' brains, pupils and pulses may be more effective than listening to what they say, EmSense is one of a cottage industry of neuromarketing firms across the country that are pitching their services to presidential campaigns....”


The Wall Street Journal Online – December 14, 2007


“These are really the cells that end up killing people.”


Device Can Spot Cancer Cells in Blood: U.S. Study



“A highly sensitive microchip may help doctors detect rare traces of cancer circulating in the bloodstream, offering a way to better manage treatment, U.S. researchers said on Wednesday.


“The device can isolate, count and analyze circulating tumor cells from a blood sample, the team at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston said.


“These circulating tumor cells, or CTCs, are the tiniest fragments of tumors, which are carried in the blood.


“Doctors have known about them for some time, but because they are so rare and so fragile, they have been hard to trap and study in a meaningful way.


“‘What our technology does is increase the sensitivity many, many fold, to a point where it can become a tool that can be used clinically,’ said Mehmet Toner, whose group developed the device....”


Reuters – December 19, 2007


No imperfect child, not even a slightly imperfect child, will be allowed in this family...


Designer Baby Fear Over Heart Gene Test



A male human foetus at 19 weeks sucking his thumb

“A British couple have won the right to test embryos for a gene that leads to high cholesterol levels and an increased risk of heart attacks, The Times has learnt.


“The decision by the fertility watchdog will reopen controversy over the ethics of designer babies, as it allows doctors to screen embryos for a condition that is treatable with drugs and can be influenced by lifestyle as well as genes.


“While the procedure is designed to detect a rare version of a disease called familial hypercholesterolaemia (FH), which often kills children before puberty, it will also identify a milder form that can be controlled by drugs and diet.


“Critics argue that the test will allow couples to destroy embryos that would have had a good chance of becoming children with fulfilling and reasonably healthy lives.


“The test will also create an unprecedented moral dilemma for some couples, as it could show that they have produced no embryos completely unaffected by the disease. This would force them to decide whether to implant embryos that they know have a genetic risk of premature heart disease and death, or to throw them away and deny them a chance of life....”


The Times Online – December 15, 2007


Making perfect babies—the time to have this debate is NOW!


Two Polar, Persuasive Stands on Reproductive Genetics

by Carlin Romano



Babies By Design

The Ethics of Genetic Choice

by Ronald M. Green

Yale University Press


The Case Against Perfection

Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering

by Michael J. Sandel

Harvard University Press



“Consider some new definitions for the 21st century.


“Little girl? Sugar and spice and everything nice—plus an exact genetic blueprint, like the how-to sheet that comes with your new cyber-era thingamajig.


“Little boy? Snakes and snails and puppy-dog tails—in addition to precociously muscled arms (Why wait until baseball camp?), a psychology programmed away from dopey cigarette smoking and binge drinking, and maybe freckles if you like them.


“We sit on the cusp of a new world in which the ability to genetically engineer our children, as well as reupholster our own organs, promises to become routine rather than exotic. Just as old definitions of life proved ethically problematic once medicine understood pregnancy better (would people fight over abortion if everyone agreed a child before birth is not conscious?), our traditional ideas of how we should control our bodies and those of our children look increasingly fragile in the face of ‘reprogenetics,’ the new medical field that unites reproductive and genetic technology....”


Philadelphia Inquirer – December 16, 2007


New crops down on the “pharm”—what’s next, aspirin corn?


The American Heartland Grows Crops—with Human Proteins



“Farmers have long experimented with crops bred to produce better yields, with few ill effects. But with little public debate, something entirely new—rice engineered to produce human proteins—is coming to a grocery store near you. In May, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) authorized Ventria Bioscience to grow as many as 3,200 acres of special rice that produces proteins normally found in breast milk.


“The California-based company hopes to market its rice as the key ingredient in a cheap formula to treat diarrhea, a condition that kills 3 million children worldwide each year....”


Foreign Policy – November/December 2007




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Worth considering...


Mastery’s Shadow


Wilfred M. McClay on Modern Medicine & the Human Soul



“The modern world prides itself on its freedom from the past’s unreflective orthodoxies. But of course it has accumulated quite an impressive stock of its own.  None is more settled than our unquestioned belief in the rightness and efficacy of using modern science and medicine to prolong human life—so long, of course, as the life in question is deemed to be of the requisite ‘quality’....


“...I am...pointing to an inescapable irony at work in the progress of modern medicine, and to the fact that the high cost of medical care may be the least of the prices we are going to be paying for it....


“The moral economy of a controlled world will demand that a villain be produced. Someone must be to blame. It will always be the twitch of the surgeon’s hand or the slip of the obstetrician’s forceps (or a slip-up by the managers of some future human hatchery), rather than the will of God or the finger of fate, or simply the imperfections of a fallen world, that explains deformity or death. Paranoia will flourish, and so will the trial lawyers, who may even become for a time the high priests of such a civilization—at least until they themselves become objects of litigious ire.


“But much of the burden of blame will devolve upon ourselves, since in being set free to choose so much about our lives, we will almost certainly find ourselves more and more anxious about, and dissatisfied with, the choices we make. It need hardly be pointed out that the expansion of choice does not always make for the expansion of happiness. Everyone knows the sense of inexplicable relief that comes when a hard decision is taken out of one’s hands by the flow of events. That relief will become rarer. Everyone knows the aching hollowness of ‘buyer’s regret.’ That ache will become more familiar. It will all be our own fault.


“The more our lives are prolonged, and the more death becomes seen as an avoidable evil whose precise moment should be ‘chosen,’ rather than an inherent feature of human life, the more we will come to live imprisoned by a compulsive and narcissistic dread of all risk, since the possible consequences of such risk—the gulf between life and death, which will yawn before us like a chasm between eternity and extinction—will be too vast, too horrible, and too fully avoidable to be contemplated. The price of living life to the fullest will be deemed too high....” 



Wilfred M. McClay holds the SunTrust Chair of Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and is the author of The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America.  He is a senior editor of Touchstone.  “Mastery’s Shadow” appeared in the March 2002 issue of Touchstone, and is available online.




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