Um história (ou estória?) de criação sintética

terça-feira, maio 25, 2010

Published online 24 May 2010 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2010.261

Column: Muse
A synthetic creation story

Claims of 'synthetic life' reflect only our changing conception of what life is and how it might be made, says Philip Ball.

Philip Ball

Last week's announcement of the 'chemical synthesis of a living organism' by Craig Venter and his colleagues at the J. Craig Venter Institute1 heads up a very long tradition. Claims such as this have been made throughout history.

That's not to cast aspersions on the new results. One can challenge the idea that Venter's bacterium stands apart from Darwinian evolution, modelled as it is on Mycoplasma mycoides. It is nonetheless an unprecedented triumph of biotechnological ingenuity.

But, set in a historical context, what the researchers have achieved is not so much a 'synthesis of life' as a semi-synthetic recreation of what we currently deem life to be. And, as with previous efforts, it should leave us questioning the adequacy of that view.

To see that the new results reiterate a perennial theme, consider the headline of the Boston Herald in 1899: "Creation of Life. Lower Animals Produced by Chemical Means." The article described how German biologist Jacques Loeb induced an unfertilized sea-urchin egg to divide and develop into a larva by treating it with salts.

Loeb went on to talk in earnest about "the artificial production of living matter", and he was not alone in blending his discovery with speculations about the de novo creation of life. In 1912, the physiologist Edward Albert Schäfer alluded optimistically to Loeb's results in his presidential address to the British Association, in which he expressed great optimism about "the possibility of the synthesis of living matter"2.

Such claims are commonly seen to imply that artificial human life is next on the agenda. It was a sign of the times that the New York Times credulously reported in 1910 that, "Prof. Herrera, a Mexican scientist, has succeeded in forming a human embryo by chemical combination". It is surely no coincidence that many media reports have compared Venter to Frankenstein, or that the British newspaper The Observer mistakenly suggested he has "succeeded in 'creating' human life for the first time".

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