Juan Masia, SJ (Sophia University)

The scientific journal SCIENCE published in December 10, 1999, an article about experiments with a parasite, whose genome is very small (only 470 genes). The scientists were trying to knock out the genes which are not essential for life, as an attempt to turn non-living chemicals into life. Next day, the newspapers talking about this experiment in a popular way were using the slogan "Recipe for life.

Any time that the communication media, quoting scientific reports, publish information about the possibility of creating new forms of life in the laboratory, there are two extreme reactions. On the one hand, some people say: "We should not play God. We do not have a right to tamper with nature." On the other hand, some people say: "If these experiments work, they will put religion out of business.

Both reactions are exaggerated. It is true that we cannot talk about life without taking into account DNA. But it is also true that life is not just DNA. We should consider the question "what life is?" not only from a biological viewpoint, but also from a social, cultural, psychological, ethical and religious viewpoint.

By the way, the research project of the above mentioned article was sponsored by J. Craig Venter (of the Celera Genomics, the Company which has been, for the past few years, engaged in an accelerated competition about biotechnological research, as we have seen in the context of the recent debates about stem cells). Actually, there are great financial interests (as I have been emphasizing in my previous articles) influencing biotechnological research and its applications.

More than twenty years ago, there was a court-case in the USA about the patentability of genetically engineered oil-eating bacterium.

At that time, the United States Catholic Conference, the National Council of Churches, and the Synagogue Council of America issued a common statement, whereby they approved some experiments on life, but with strong caveats.

They said: "New forms of life may have potential for improving human life, whether by curing disease, correcting genetic deficiencies, or swallowing oil slicks. The may, however, have unforeseen ramifications and at times the cure may be worse than the problem. When the products are new forms of life, there should be a broader criteria than profit for determining their use and distribution. Experimentation and ownership of new life forms should not move ahead without public regulations (Origins, 1980, October, 7, p. 98-99).

If biotechnology is applied under ethical criteria, it can help billions of people all over the earth. For instance, genetically engineered bacteria produce insulin for diabetes and genetically altered crops enhance survival of plants.

Synthetic life could be in the future a new step to enhance human life. But we cannot be too optimistic about it, unless we thoroughly answer the following three questions about safety, justice and culture:

1) How are we going to control safety and avoid risks to human life?

2) How are we going to distribute in a just way the products of biotechnological research, without falling into the traps of the stock market?

3) What are going to be the effects of these developments (including the tendency to consider life as a commodity) upon our view on life and upon our world view?

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