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Synthetic DNA About To Yield New Life Forms

kdawson posted more than 6 years ago | from the what-could-possibly-go-wrong dept.

Biotech 240

mlimber sends along a Washington Post story about the immanence of completely artificial life: "The cobbling together of life from synthetic DNA, scientists and philosophers agree, will be a watershed event, blurring the line between biological and artificial — and forcing a rethinking of what it means for a thing to be alive... Some experts are worried that a few maverick companies are already gaining monopoly control over the core 'operating system' for artificial life and are poised to become the Microsofts of synthetic biology. That could stifle competition, they say, and place enormous power in a few people's hands."

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240 comments

Obgl. (0, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21735642)

I for one, welcome our Artificial Overlords.

Re:Obgl. (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21735692)

This has already been done [myminicity.com]

Re:Obgl. (0, Offtopic)

ajs318 (655362) | more than 6 years ago | (#21736684)

What *is* that "myminicity.com" link?  I can't make much out of this Source Code:

<html>
<head>
<title>MyMiniCity</title>
</head>
<body>
        <noscript>
                This site needs JavaScript.
        </noscript>

        <script type="text/javascript">
        //<![CDATA[

        var d = new Date();
        d.setTime(d.getTime()+47994);
        var exp = d.toGMTString();
        if( document.referrer != null )
                document.cookie = "X-MV-Referer="+encodeURIComponent(document.referrer);
        document.cookie = "X-Ref-Ok=1;expires="+exp+";path=/"
        document.location.href = document.location.href;
        //]]>
        </script>
        <p><em>Please wait a few moments...</em></p>

</body>
</html>

I mean .....  why would someone set document.location.href = document.location.href ?  What is it doing?

For Freedumb! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21735990)

That could stifle competition, they say, and place enormous power in a few people's hands


Given that so few people will actually understand any of this shit... isn't that pretty much a given?

If I figure out how to give people super powers, you better bet your ass I'm going to be the first person getting them.

Re:For Freedumb! (0)

somersault (912633) | more than 6 years ago | (#21736826)

But then you'll drive yourself insane from all the extra testosterone and adrenaline pumping through your body, and end up killing yourself in a bitter showdown with Spiderman..

Re:For Freedumb! (1)

smitty_one_each (243267) | more than 6 years ago | (#21737048)

You can look at, say, the linux kernel code.
The DNA code is orders of magnitude more complicated.

If I figure out how to give people super powers
The debugging involved in granting super-powers, while keeping the product stable over a full natural life, is going to provide the stuff of horror movies for decades to come.
I don't doubt the power of the human mind to get us there, I'm just saying that we'll be getting there in second gear as opposed to fifth, and with much more mess than the dreamers really want.

it's tyrell's fault (1, Funny)

User 956 (568564) | more than 6 years ago | (#21735644)

The cobbling together of life from synthetic DNA, scientists and philosophers agree, will be a watershed event, blurring the line between biological and artificial

Yeah, but this will only become a problem in the year 2019, and probably only in Los Angeles.

theologian's typo? (5, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21735660)

That is _imminence_, or the quality of being imminent...

Immanence is almost another entirely: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immanence [wikipedia.org]

Re:theologian's typo? (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21735794)

Unless you lookat from another point of view [myminicity.com]

Re:theologian's typo? (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21735890)

You could at least use spaces properly when spamming your crappy site, noob

Re:theologian's typo? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21736066)

You forgot the requisite

"Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die."

Car of the future (5, Funny)

MillionthMonkey (240664) | more than 6 years ago | (#21735682)

What kinds of organisms will scientists, terrorists and other creative individuals make?

[broken image]

Figure I. SCHEMATIC.
Modified design for a low-pH respiratory engine. 1) monobasic phosphate buffer tank. 2) ADP-GDP reservoir. 3) primary ADP-GDP feed line. 4) NAD/FAD reservoir. 5) pyruvate feed line. 6) Deinococcus culture chamber. 7) ADP-GDP return line. 8) NADH-FADH2 return line. 9) pasteurizer. 10) sodium-potassium pump. 11) NaCl/KCl reservoir. 12) actin filament membrane. 13) myosin-hydroxyapetite cylinder. 14) axle. 15) flywheel. 16) dilute H3PO4 reservoir. 17) intake port. 18) myosin generator. 19) proton pump. 20) ATPase membrane. 21) secondary ATP feed line. 22) electrophoresis cartridge. 23) pH regulator. 24) UV sterilizer. 25) transmission. 26) +12VDC battery. 27) radiator coil assembly. 28) CO2 exhaust vent. 29) fan. 30) phosphate return line. 31) brake assembly. 32) generator. 33) amylase generator. 34) glycolysis chamber. 35) fibrolytic culture chamber array. 36) microcontroller. 37) compost chamber. 38) thresher. 39) lid. Cit. L. Xu et al, Cellulosic Artificial Muscle Engines (2057), Biomech. Eng. Letts. 21 599-612

Re:Car of the future (2, Funny)

oblivionboy (181090) | more than 6 years ago | (#21736016)

Wrong!!

Let me try.

Figure I. SCHEMATIC: #32 Hot Woman.

Re:Car of the future (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21736270)

I wonder how many really attractive stars and models of both sexes are checking their "image rights" contracts to make sure that they will not be cloned?

If it is ruled that the organisms created are "artificial" then you would be able to get around prohibitions against cloning people, but you could use the templates for their appearance in the construct just as if it were a doll....

Oh yes... I can envision a time that a person could go to some nation in the developing world and buy themselves a shag pack of Heather Locklears...

Offtopic? (0, Offtopic)

Tony (765) | more than 6 years ago | (#21736124)

Right. Off topic.

This is probably the funniest damned post in the entire thread, spot on-topic for both patents and artificial life forms, and you get modded "offtopic."

See, here's the deal, mods: *I'm* offtopic. The parent post was *funny.* See the difference? His was filled with relevant, smart, funny information. Mine is mere whining about mods and the way they waste their points. HUGE FUCKING DIFFERENCE!

Mr. MillionthMonkey, Sir, you may not have writ the works of Shakespeare, but your post made me throw up laughing.

Thank you.

Re:Car of the future (0, Offtopic)

willyhill (965620) | more than 6 years ago | (#21736242)

This is seriously funny, thanks. You certainly did not deserve the offtopic mod.

Re:Car of the future (0, Offtopic)

LarsWestergren (9033) | more than 6 years ago | (#21737042)

This is seriously funny, thanks. You certainly did not deserve the offtopic mod.

Ok, I hate looking stupid, but I spent 10 minutes on Wikipedia looking up stuff, but I still don't see the funny. I'd rather admit being ignorant and learn something that remaining ignorant, so - Someone feel like hitting me with a cluestick?

Describes something already existing? Sci-fi literary/movie reference? A biology experiment everyone but me did in high-school, or...?

MOD PARENT ROFL (0, Offtopic)

Smordnys s'regrepsA (1160895) | more than 6 years ago | (#21736314)

I think the problem here may be that you have to dumb it down a bit.

I'd give you an example involving a car analogy, but... err, well you seem to be the master in that subject.

Its a sad day in /.

Shouldn't I get credit.?? (-1, Offtopic)

Advocate123 (1144841) | more than 6 years ago | (#21735708)

I am so angry!!! If you check the firehose, I posted this story within my editorial about 15 minutes before this link. Check it out "Why Evolution Matters."

Pfftt... (2, Funny)

RuBLed (995686) | more than 6 years ago | (#21735718)

And while some industry groups have talked about policing the field themselves, the technology is quickly becoming so simple, experts say, that it will not be long before "bio hackers" working in garages will be downloading genetic programs and making them into novel life forms.


SPORE hype...

Not completely artifical (3, Insightful)

timeOday (582209) | more than 6 years ago | (#21735728)

Anything still based on DNA is re-using nature's building blocks. It's like in Photoshop, using the clone tool vs. drawing a photorealistic texture freehand - there's a huge difference. Nature has been searching the space of DNA recombinations for a long time.

Re:Not completely artifical (4, Interesting)

Angry Toad (314562) | more than 6 years ago | (#21735772)

True but nature's selection criteria aren't the same as man's. We can probably hit maxima that would be outcompeted in nature in a second. There are probably lots of unique and useful solutions out there when survival constraints are relaxed.

Re:Not completely artifical (5, Insightful)

MillionthMonkey (240664) | more than 6 years ago | (#21736054)

We can probably hit maxima that would be outcompeted in nature in a second.

That depends on your definition of "maxima".

Even with survival constraints as the basis for a successful design, it can't be denied that an intelligent designer could have come up with much better designs than the ones you see. Attributing evolutionary designs to an intelligent being is practically an insult when you look at some of the shoddy work evolution has come up with. Our testicles, for example, hang from our undersides dangerously exposed, just because some protein denatures at core body temperatures. Apparently something needs to be redesigned that can't be made to work better with slow incremental improvements. Evolution's fix: make them hurt like hell when struck so you learn not to mess with them. A Microsoft-style hack. If we threw a bunch of supercomputers at the problem we might come up with a completely different protein design that would allow reproduction with undescended testicles.

Disregarding survival constraints as a parameter, a world of possibilities opens up. There is nothing in physics or chemistry that prevents the existence of almost any organism you can imagine, so long as fundamental physical constraints are adhered to such as conservation of energy, rising entropy, etc. I'd like an animal with wheels that I can drive to work, with chlorophyll in its skin so I don't have to feed it. Maybe it can sun itself on the roof while I'm at meetings, and ooze a delicious health drink from a special orifice so I can catch dinner on the way home. (Don't spit up your milk laughing, it's quite possible.) A creature like that would go extinct pretty quickly but it would sure be convenient to have one, and no law of nature prevents such a thing from existing.

Re:Not completely artifical (3, Insightful)

Plutonite (999141) | more than 6 years ago | (#21736218)

Our testicles, for example, hang from our undersides dangerously exposed, just because some protein denatures at core body temperatures. Apparently something needs to be redesigned
Please speak for yourself, I like my testicles where they are thankyouverymuch. You might at well argue that we should have our genitals protectively hidden deep back in our throats and that we inseminate the females by spurting out the damn seed while we french kiss. or something. Wait, that was awful, sorry.

While there is probably a lot that can be improved in the engineering of human bodies, I find it slightly disheartening that after thousands of years of learning we are still unable to create a single complex living cell without help from nature. When we do, it will be the greatest feat of engineering ever, and I will party like hell.

Re:Not completely artifical (1)

ResidntGeek (772730) | more than 6 years ago | (#21736806)

When we do, it will be the greatest feat of engineering ever, and I will party like hell.
It'd be more of a triumph for analytical and organic chemistry, really. Analytical chemistry provides the high-resolution structure of the various components, and organic chemistry provides the reactions to synthesize them - all the engineers would be doing, is putting everything in the right order. It would require precision, certainly, but I'd assign more credit to the chemists.

Re:Not completely artifical (1)

blahplusplus (757119) | more than 6 years ago | (#21736536)

"Our testicles, for example, hang from our undersides dangerously exposed,"

Existing is dangerous in and of itself, I'm sure next you'll claim "existing is dangerous" kill me now! The design or non-design of something is totally arbitrary. If we look at entropy and the laws of nature, it's a double edged sword, you can't have one thing without the other, it falls out of the geometry naturally.

A perfectly designed being would be a *god* by definition, and hence not natural, not made of the kind of matter and energy we know of, it would be of an entirely differnet nature (i.e. some kind of strange omni-vector energy, which is in omni-superposition), that never changes.

Re:Not completely artifical (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21736906)

I think your post broke my brain. A *god* by definition is supernatural. A perfectly designed being is, in the context of this discussion, necessarily natural.

I'm not even touching that second paragraph of yours. Hopefully you're drunk and you'll regret it in the morning.

Re:Not completely artifical (3, Interesting)

DaedalusHKX (660194) | more than 6 years ago | (#21736586)

You seem to know little about this subject.

Testicles are among the least of our concerns... what SHOULD concern you, especially in a "SURVIVAL" related subject, is that man seems to have been meant to stay on Earth (until man gets over this particular problem.)

See, man is one of TWO mammalian species that requires an external source of vitamin C... otherwise we get scurvy... and eventually kick the bucket. Interesting that Earth's apex predator is range limited by something so simple as carrying a satchel of oranges or lemons on the ship... (okay, not all specimens of homo sapiens qualify for more than "monkey" classification, granted, and some are not capable of even surviving in society, nevermind without said crutch.)

However, a voyage to the stars, without a good supply of replenishable vitamin C would become a trip delimited by a few days/weeks past the day when the vitamin C runs out.

Pretty sad, when you think about it, every schmuck is looking at all these "big" problems, instead of looking at the fundamentals. Testicles and their placement on the body is nowhere nearly as bad as the fact that every single instance of homo sapiens in space would be cut short by the vitamin C supply. Ironic really, perhaps "intelligent design" might warrant a second look, unless of course, evolution and any supernatural forces others might attribute evolution to "realized" that man was a plague, and should be limited to Earth until it managed to kill itself off, whether by grey goo, killer designer virus, or just plain good ole' nuclear warfare.

If that isn't a vote for intelligent design or intelligent forces of evolution, I don't know what is :)

Re:Not completely artifical (2)

Yetihehe (971185) | more than 6 years ago | (#21736814)

Your post is a little moot. EVERY organism on earth is meant to stay on earth. Every voyage to the stars is limited by water, food and oxygen. Vitamin C is least of your worries as you can just take a few kilograms of pure Vit C. It's so cheap it is even used as a preservative in many many foods. But you can't live JUST on it.

Re:Not completely artifical (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21736834)

Uh, or it could just be that we're descended from a hominid living where fruit was pretty abundant, hence there was little reason to expend resources on the biological machinery needed for vitamin C synthesis? Selection pressures have to be fairly strong or organisms tend to make do with something that mostly works.

Also, maybe it wouldn't be that good to constantly have low levels of vit C circulating ... "antioxidant" vitamins have recently come in for criticism, it seems that taking them isn't actually correlated with lower incidence of cols / longer life etc and in fact even slightly elevated levels of some may be harmful. What protective effects 'antioxidants' may have seem to be due to stimulating natural repair systems to deal with the damage they cause ...

Re:Not completely artifical (4, Insightful)

mcrbids (148650) | more than 6 years ago | (#21736632)

Our testicles, for example, hang from our undersides dangerously exposed, just because some protein denatures at core body temperatures. Apparently something needs to be redesigned that can't be made to work better with slow incremental improvements. Evolution's fix: make them hurt like hell when struck so you learn not to mess with them. A Microsoft-style hack. If we threw a bunch of supercomputers at the problem we might come up with a completely different protein design that would allow reproduction with undescended testicles.

Which explains the survivability of so much hackish, clumsy, but real-working software. See, software, or life organisms persist to the degree that they solve real-world problems. How "elegant" the solution is is rather secondary. Often, real-world problems are ugly, pseudo-random nasty problems that don't have a clear, simple, ivory tower style solution. I maintain a large, complex, beautiful software codebase that has the ugliest, most horrible hack of a pile of regex and scripting as its very center. The nasty hacks have been amazingly stable for years now, and work well, even if they are a serious pain to edit during the (very rare) need to edit.

It's carefully sandboxed - the ugly part sits in a single file that is itself wrapped inside a handler function, so the "pretty" part of the codebase is *never* contaminated by the ugly, "written in a day or two" hack that got the whole shebang started.

Sometimes, no matter how much you kick and scream, you have several screens of ugly case statements littered with random function calls, and you end up with a great big ball of mud [laputan.org].

Guess what!?!?! Look in the mirror - YOU ARE A GREAT BIG BALL OF MUD. Your body is a complex set of unclear, un-abstracted dependencies without clear boundaries. For example, we've long thought of the pancreas as a key component of blood sugar control. But recent research shows that the bones (yes, bones!) of the body also contribute to positive blood-sugar control [nytimes.com]. As a borderline type-II diabetic, I pay attention to things like this...

Millions of years of evolution (or a few years of hard work by a half-drunk God) have resulted in your body, which is a festering pile of weird dependencies. For example, if you don't get exposed to enough dirt as a baby, you end up with asthma [bbc.co.uk].

If Microsoft's software is truly evolutionary in nature, that would explain its dominance in today's marketplace - it's well adapted to survive in the software environment we've seen so far, and like the dinosaurs, it will only be beaten back when the basic environment changes. (which it is)

Get used to the world of "dirty" evolutionary solutions - it's the basic building block of life itself!

Re:Not completely artifical (1)

somersault (912633) | more than 6 years ago | (#21736854)

Evolution's fix: make them hurt like hell when struck so you learn not to mess with them. A Microsoft-style hack.
Either that or it shows that God has a sense of humour? Or is just giving a convenient way for girls to protect themselves in situations where they are usually at a gross disadvantage because the man is already stronger.. you can go at it with a bunch of supercomputers if you'd rather have to beat someone senseless with a heavy implement (or perhaps just shoot them?) rather than just kick them in the nuts and run away.

Re:Not completely artifical (1)

aliquis (678370) | more than 6 years ago | (#21736084)

Maxima of the species in question or for our purpose? Evolution doesn't happen for the benefit of other species you know ..

Re:Not completely artifical (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21736598)

There are probably lots of unique and useful solutions out there when survival constraints are relaxed.

"Your genetic licenses are about to expire. Please deposit $25.00 to ensure continued viability of your 'normal life' enhancements."

police force needed (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21735838)

This has already been done [myminicity.com]

Lame link spam (0, Offtopic)

Valdrax (32670) | more than 6 years ago | (#21735920)

What is it with you losers showing up lately, spamming every forum in creation with your pathetic, viral attempts at tricking people into clicking on your useless damned links? You people are internet parasites, gaining momentary whizzing contest bragging rights at the expense of the wasted time and disappointment of everyone who think that you might have had something interesting to see at the end of that link.

Re:Lame link spam (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21735932)

Clicking the link helps my city grow [myminicity.com]

Re:Lame link spam (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21736400)

In that case, I must assume that NOT clicking the link helps your city wither and die away. I always like a good post-apocalyptic city! I think I'll watch it decay.

In other news.. (2, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21736006)

"...a few maverick companies are already gaining monopoly control over the core 'operating system' for artificial life ..."

Roman Catholic Church cites Genesis in Prior Art claim.....

Re:In other news.. (1)

ajs318 (655362) | more than 6 years ago | (#21736736)

Um, no. Celtic Supporters generally believe in evolution. It's Rangers Fans who take Genesis literally.

Re:Not completely artifical (2, Informative)

wizardforce (1005805) | more than 6 years ago | (#21736018)

*ahem* there's no reason why we would need to specifically build artificial life based on DNA or RNA for that matter, there are several analogues that do jsut as well. maybe in time we'll find a completely different way of doing things that doesn't require anything remotely resembling the sugar phosphodiester backbone common in genetic systems today. even if we decided to base things on the DNA backbone, we could and probably will be using entirely different nucleotide bases to encode everything- none of which are known to exist in natural, healthy genetic systems.

Re:Not completely artifical (2, Informative)

wyldeone (785673) | more than 6 years ago | (#21736064)

*ahem* there's no reason why we would need to specifically build artificial life based on DNA or RNA for that matter, there are several analogues that do jsut as well

Yes, there is. Doing so allows synthetic biologists to use all the cellular machinery, vastly simplifying their job. In case you didn't read the article, all the team referenced has done is create an artificial genome which, while still a very important achievement that will open many new doors in synthetic biology (assuming patent protections don't slam them shut), is nowhere near the difficulty of creating an entire organism from scratch, which is what you suggest would require.

Re:Not completely artifical (1)

wizardforce (1005805) | more than 6 years ago | (#21736196)

yes, I should have rephrased that. there's no reason why we couldn't [eventually] build "life" based on entirely synthetic genetic systems. or for that matter, use it in lesser roles in lifeforms as they exist now. certain bacteria already modify their phosphate backbone with a sulfur based group which allows them to alter expression of their genes. morpholinos are already being used to temporarily modify gene expression; from there it would likely be a much shorter hop to replacing a much larger set of biochemical pathways with ones that could in principle, work with a slightly altered genetic system- small changes over time to eventually making entire organisms that don't even use DNA or RNA. or if we so choose, we could keep them using DNA/RNA as backbones and add aditional nucleotide bases [this is already being worked on] which can encode additional amino acids etc...

Re:Not completely artifical (1)

arotenbe (1203922) | more than 6 years ago | (#21736446)

It's like in Photoshop, using the clone tool vs. drawing a photorealistic texture freehand - there's a huge difference.

Not if a company copyrighted the texture, or patented it, or made it a trade secret. Could they then sue you for using the clone tool?

What if the genetic equivalent of Microsoft tried to patent DNA? Anyone remember the guy who patented the wheel?

Have they even seen "I Am Legend!" (0, Offtopic)

edwardpickman (965122) | more than 6 years ago | (#21735744)

Okay it's a crappy knock off of a classic novel but don't they see the potential for turning us all into a bunch of lame CG vampires?

Re:Have they even seen "I Am Legend!" (1)

X0563511 (793323) | more than 6 years ago | (#21736418)

Er, no, I don't think they would see that. In fact, I don't see how anyone could see that.

Oh come on... (5, Insightful)

PieSquared (867490) | more than 6 years ago | (#21735750)

How exactly does this blur the boundaries of life? I could see some people questioning if a virus was really alive, but adding more things like viruses wouldn't *further* blur the line, and anything as complex as bacteria would be life regardless of if they were natural or not.

I suppose if you let religion define "life" for you this might cause trouble, but definitions shouldn't be the job of religion.

Re:Oh come on... (2, Interesting)

QuantumG (50515) | more than 6 years ago | (#21735954)

the term "life" has zero meaning and will continue to have zero meaning. Any sensible definition you care to give will also classify computer programs, tractors and aeroplanes, unless you specifically exclude them. For a while, people have gotten around this by saying "oh, I mean biological life" but now that we're making machines out of biological "stuff" that trick doesn't work anymore.

Re:Oh come on... (3, Informative)

heinousjay (683506) | more than 6 years ago | (#21736052)

Pretty much every definition of life I've ever seen included reproduction. I don't recall ever seeing tractors and airplanes reproduce. Software is only virtual anyway, and the arguments aren't very interesting unless one is in the mood to get very abstract. Do you have any more bad examples?

Re:Oh come on... (1)

sholden (12227) | more than 6 years ago | (#21736180)

So a mule isn't life?

Re:Oh come on... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21736376)

A mule is a grouping of cooperating cells, and those cells are capable of reproducing themselves, so, yes, the mule is alive. Left alone, all of those cells will eventually die, but they don't *have* to -- they could be extracted and cultured indefinitely (non-stem cells would have to be converted to stem cells, perhaps via exposure to various small-molecules).

Re:Oh come on... (1)

QuantumG (50515) | more than 6 years ago | (#21736182)

So you're saying that sterile animals are not alive?

How about sterile amoeba?

Re:Oh come on... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21736428)

Sterile amoeba cannot propagate, so they're not alive. They can perform all sorts of functions that living cells can (movement, protein synthesis from remaining transcripts, glycolysis, etc.), but they can't reproduce, so they're essentially just a really complex jumble of biochemical reactions enclosed in a membrane.

Re:Oh come on... (5, Insightful)

feepness (543479) | more than 6 years ago | (#21736248)

Pretty much every definition of life I've ever seen included reproduction. I don't recall ever seeing tractors and airplanes reproduce.
Maybe human beings are tractors way of reproducing.

Re:Oh come on... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21736708)

I like our way better.

Re:Oh come on... (1)

protobion (870000) | more than 6 years ago | (#21736812)

Turn the perspective around a bit. Life (biological, carbon-based, "wet") can be thought of as a system which has the property of maintenance and duplication of information for a defined duration - a region of lower entropy (if you will) that seeds other regions of lower entropy, in a background littered with existing complex and chaotic systems (the ecosystem around, if we are talking of one cell, or the geochemical cycles). The system is able to seed others like itself of course, because of the specific nature of its environment, and the properties of the environment are utilized just as much to do the seeding. This definition meshes the "living" and non-"living". In that sense, tractors and aeroplanes are again regions of lower entropy (as opposed to chunks of metal and plastic from which they came), produced as a result of the environment they are in (human's being the last step in the formation of an attractor called the "tractor" system, lets say.) One could argue that tractors and aeroplanes cause such effects on the environment as to allow the creation of new tractors and aeroplanes. Mechanistically from a human-centric view, tractors and aeroplanes allow productivity to rise, causing humans to prosper, and to make *more* tractors and aeroplanes. Whether information of the tractor's nature is trasnmitted to its seeded offspring (heredity) is not so hard to explain. When a design of a tractor or aeroplanes is especially suitable, it is likely that the next generation of tractors will follow the same trend. Again, from a human centric point of view, we might change the design true , but wouldn't that be "environmental factors scrambling the information"...a.k.a mutation. The term life thus really has no meaning. It is a term that loosely defines complexity and presumed autonomy of a system. Any system complex enough to be beyond our understanding is magic. Could well be, that any system complex and invisible enough to be beyond our understanding and vision, is alive. Don't people always say "it has a mind of its own" :)

Re:Oh come on... (1)

Unique2 (325687) | more than 6 years ago | (#21736502)

The problem could be that our definition of "life" really boils down to, "a chain of events, sufficiently complex, that we do not yet understand". By that definition, anything we do create, cannot be "life" and the term will soon be antiquated.

I sure hope so (1)

QuantumG (50515) | more than 6 years ago | (#21735760)

In fact, government controls on trade in dangerous microbes do not apply to the bits of DNA that can be used to create them. And while some industry groups have talked about policing the field themselves, the technology is quickly becoming so simple, experts say, that it will not be long before "bio hackers" working in garages will be downloading genetic programs and making them into novel life forms.
We've only been waiting, forever. It's hard to imagine the megacorps coming up with something even remotely innovative to do with this technology. We need hackers.

Competition? (1)

istartedi (132515) | more than 6 years ago | (#21735796)

They're worried about competition? As in BUSINESS competition? This kind of tech makes me worry more about competition in the true Darwinian sense of the word. What happens when "the Microsoft of DNA" codes an airborn AIDS virus into the system? Kinda puts all that Wall Street crap into perspective, doesn't it?

Re:Competition? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21736294)

Then some mad scientist gets the patent to stop said air-born virus.

DMCA (2, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21735798)

Just be glad that God hasn't invoked the DMCA on reverse-engineering his DNA Code yet.

not jsut DNA (5, Interesting)

wizardforce (1005805) | more than 6 years ago | (#21735820)

who says artificial life needs to be based on DNA? The earliest forms of life probably used RNA instead or one of its cousins like TNA, GNA, PNA or LNA. DNA is only special in the fact that it is missing a key hydroxyl group in the 2 position. this makes DNA more stable because there's no nucleophillic group there toi assist in self-cleavage of the phosphodiester bond. GNA has a backbone of glycerol rather than ribose [RNA] or deoxyribose [DNA]. PNA uses a reperating serine polypeptide backbone and because the whole thing has no charge like DNA does it has a much higher melting temperature [can withstand more heat] which may make it superior to DNA or RNA in some applications in biology. TNA on the other hand, has a synthetic polymerase enzyme that has to my knowledge, been able to create strands 1000 bases long. then there's alternative nucleotide bases, there are similar molecules to the naturally occuring 5 that also can encode for proteins and act in genetic systems. there's a lot that can be done with this, it's just a pity that it will probably be encumbered in patents if and when any of it is realized.

On the other hand... (1)

uncamarty (245075) | more than 6 years ago | (#21735910)

What I have a problem with is the concept of

"...place enormous power in a few people's hands."


Would you prefer that we place enormous power in everybody's hands? Regardless of their level of skill or ethics?

Re:On the other hand... (1)

tqft (619476) | more than 6 years ago | (#21736056)

"we place enormous power in everybody's hands"

So we should cut off everbody but a few selected leaders access to money and source code because they have the skill and ethics to handle it?

And knowledge - don't want anyone learning physics and building weapons.

It's a bit late now to be worried the power some will have - they will get it, the question is how to counterbalance it. Like you I am not real thrilled with the idea of MAD in everybodies hands - but what other alternatives are there?

Re:On the other hand... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21736178)

Perhaps we can come up with some sort of "GPL DNA"...

No difference (1)

Tony (765) | more than 6 years ago | (#21736070)

Would you prefer that we place enormous power in everybody's hands? Regardless of their level of skill or ethics?

That's effectively the same thing.

What you describe is similar to "security through obscurity," the hope that not enough people will have the knowledge and information needed to cause damage. As soon as one person has the knowledge and power, you have compromised security. The whole point is to design a system that is resistant to knowledge and power.

Unfortunately, since we didn't design the system (biology), there's not much we can do to make it hack-proof. I believe we're still dozens of years away from synthetic life, but once it happens, it might as well be in the power of all people. This isn't something like The Bomb that you can control with access to scarce resources.

I'm not as pessimistic as Bill Joy (ironic last name when he goes off on his "the world is doomed" tear), but I definitely think it doesn't matter whether everybody gets this tech, or only a few get this tech. We're pretty much equally screwed either way.

Re:On the other hand... (1)

MidnightBrewer (97195) | more than 6 years ago | (#21736274)

Would you prefer to limit it to a few people whose only differentiating trait is that they're incredibly rich or happen to be in power? People with wealth and power are not typically known for their high moral standards.

Re:On the other hand... (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21736758)

People are not typically known for their high moral standards.
There, fixed it for you ...

I can see how too (1)

rucs_hack (784150) | more than 6 years ago | (#21735934)

That could stifle competition, they say, and place enormous power in a few people's hands

Only if they allow these companies to patent the technology so broadly as to stifle competition. By 'only' I of course mean 'when'.

It's crazy talk anyway. The 'Microsoft of DNA'? To Paraphrase Paul Graham, only if there's someone to bend over and be the IBM of DNA.

Seriously though, that's highly unlikely at this stage unless effective monopolies are granted via patent and maintained in perpetuity so as to prevent any competition from establishing.

Also, right at this moment there's not even agreement in science as to what is required to describe a Core Promoter in all cases, and most definitely no clear idea as to how we should best describe some of the conserved sequences which form it, they're pretty darned variable, and that's just one component of a gene. This is like saying you can build a car but you haven't actually discovered how to make a wheel.

Synth DNA Monopoly (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21735940)

This is a serious concern and has already caused significant disruption to life as we know it here [myminicity.com]

True Virus Hackers (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21735992)

Within thirty years biochemistry students might have to buy "chemistry sets" at the campus bookstore for their home lab work. And some of those students will surely feel the urge to initiate global epidemics with modified viruses. That kind of evolution will likely be far too fast for the vaccination developers to keep up.

School shooters and airplane hijackers will look amiable compared to these demigods that wipe out hundreds of millions of people in each exploit.

Our good friends (1)

Terminal Saint (668751) | more than 6 years ago | (#21736020)

No doubt our good friends at Monsanto would kill to be the main maverick company in question.

Re:Our good friends (1)

artanis00 (1160791) | more than 6 years ago | (#21736308)

I think this could be avoided, just need some rules.
Base them out of the laws against slavery, extending the prohibition against owning another human to prohibiting the ownership of any part of another human.
  - This stops anyone from attempting to require license fees from another human, simply for living. Trying to do that could probably be seen as unconstitutional, anyhow. Human should be expanded/replaced to encompass any sentient life-form, should we ever encounter one. Only thing left is to define human.

Follow that up with a prohibiting any claim on either natural or assisted (artificial insemination, etc.,) reproduction by any life-form.
  - This should stop anyone from attempting to require license fees to reproduce, which could have murderous effects on population and food supply if it becomes economically impossible to do either. It should remain possible to have some claim on a non-human life-form that is spliced together. The original. Once you sell or lose control of a life-form, that life-form can create descendants that either belong to its new owner, or to no one.

Basically, regardless of how much money and time is spent developing a set of genetic code, 2 things should always remain true: a human being is his own, and any life-form can reproduce, regardless of patented genetics, without incurring fines.
Just some ideas. I'm certain they're half-baked, and full of holes, but there you are.

look mom, here's my new virus (1)

wikinerd (809585) | more than 6 years ago | (#21736104)

Considering that many people choose to apply their programming skills in writing computer viruses, should we expect like-minded people to disseminate real synthetic viruses once the technology becomes sufficiently mainstream?

Re:look mom, here's my new virus (1)

Grey_14 (570901) | more than 6 years ago | (#21736232)

Scarier than that, computer viruses have taken a drastic turn towards being used for nefarious means, greater than just trashing data, When the zombie revolution comes, they will be chanting "Buy... Viagraaaaa"

Whoa (2, Interesting)

jandersen (462034) | more than 6 years ago | (#21736174)

Hold it, hold it! We're not quite there yet. It was only yesterday, on the historical timescale, that we discovered DNA and now we are beginning to get some vague ideas about how some of the things actually work. We can even theorize about correcting errors in people's genetic code, but creating a living cell from scratch? Not even the best biologists know more than a tiny fraction of what goes into making a living cell function. IOW, we are far, far out in the world of science fiction here nobody is just on the threshold to discovering how to create living cells from scratch, or even mostly from scratch.

If and when that ever happens, I don't think any of the readers of /. will be around. The problem with absurd, sweeping patents will have solved itself by collapsing completely, capitalism is likely to have been left behind as yet another temporary absurdity in human culture, the climate change crisis will have run its course and found its solution, and if humanity is still around, we will have found a role as the guardians and preservers of the planets.

Re:Whoa (2, Informative)

QuantumG (50515) | more than 6 years ago | (#21736268)

It was announced this year that most of the genes of ecoli are now "understood" to the degree that we can now remove the genes we don't understand and still get a working system. It really is amazing how fast biotech is moving..

J. Craig Venter [wikipedia.org] is still the leading force. Next year he plans to publish a full artificial genome for a "minimalist" microbe. This thing can metabolize a feedstock and reproduce. All the genes are well understood. The structure of the proteins they make have been described. How the proteins interact has been studied. There are system schematics.

This really is like an "operating system" for a cell. The kinds of "applications" you will run on it will likely not be anything like the biological processes. Using standardized parts like Biobricks [mit.edu] from MIT, you'll be able to hack together multicellular systems for performing some exotic task. Anything from producing wanted biological products to computation.

And wouldn't it be ironic..... (4, Interesting)

mark-t (151149) | more than 6 years ago | (#21736286)

<troll>If many hundreds of thousands or millions of years from now when humanity is a thing of the past, descendants of the synthetic DNA creatures start debating about whether or not they evolved naturally, or were created by a long-forgotten designer? Of course the former would obviously be a more acceptable conclusion, since the latter creates additional complexity.</troll>

Re:And wouldn't it be ironic..... (1)

BiggerIsBetter (682164) | more than 6 years ago | (#21736830)

It would only answer so much... If they (or we) were designed, it only changes the question to, "How did the designed come to be?"

vaporware (4, Insightful)

graft (556969) | more than 6 years ago | (#21736292)

It should be pointed out that the technology described is largely fictitious. The best labs haven't even managed to create a single artificial cell, and those technologies ALL use cobbled-together bits stolen from other lifeforms - nothing truly from scratch. There are a few good examples of proteins being engineered to specific functions (mostly DNA binding specificity), but we're ages away from being able to say, "Okay, I want to synthesize a protein that does this random function; here's how I would do it." And as for more complex lifeforms? Forget it. We don't even understand the development process of any multicellular organism in any detail, never mind being able to manufacture our own. So, on the whole, I think this story is akin to worrying about who is going to get control of, say, shrink-ray technology. Scary when it happens, but it ain't happening any time soon.

gLife (1)

jfenwick (961674) | more than 6 years ago | (#21736396)

Coming soon to a search engine near you: Search the Google database of life forms that have been successfully created in the lab to find the one that fits your biotech industrial needs. All open source, will full RNA patterns necessary to generate the cDNA from PCRs.

I don't want a Kronos Corporation either (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21736554)

Does this mean the end of disease? Or a new host of plagues?

It's jurrasic park all over again. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21736620)

I hope they saw the movie.

Confused (1)

Amiralul (1164423) | more than 6 years ago | (#21736744)

Stem cell research is banned because we have to *sit* and *think* about it... Is it good, is it bad... Hmmm... We are not sure so, uhm, let's ban it. Done.
Meanwhile, artificial DNA yields artificial lifeforms, with totally unknown consequences. This is fun! More dangerous than stem cells, but it's fun, sounds like a creppy sci-fi movie! So why ban it?

"Microsoft" of Artificial Life. (3, Interesting)

ElizabethGreene (1185405) | more than 6 years ago | (#21736878)

There may be a "patent troll" of artificial life, but there will be no Microsoft. DNA is, by definition, open source.

-ellie
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