The bottom-up approach also brings with it the prospect of more profound ethical challenges, not least the affront such a feat could deliver to religious beliefs based on the singular, life-giving power of a divine creator. “If you really can create life from scratch out of inorganic materials,” says Bedau, “it’ll be the last straw to that whole house Darwin knocked over. You can watch someone do it, and you can look under a microscope and there it is.”
Bedau and ProtoLife business manager Emily Parke ’04 are working on a book of essays on ethical implications and potential consequences of artificial life research. With something so unprecedented, it’s hard to imagine what the environmental consequences could be. Packard argues that building artificial cells from scratch is likely to be less risky than doing so using natural organisms that have been genetically manipulated. His reasoning is that modified DNA-based life can readily interact with other DNA-based life.
Bedau suggests that the first generation of artificial cells will be extremely feeble and utterly dependent on human intervention to survive. He expects the work to proceed incrementally, with many opportunities to halt the research and development if unexpected dangers emerge.
“All the time, we do things that change the world around us,” he says, “and it’s not necessarily bad to do that. I think it’s good to do it in a responsible and thoughtful way. Change is happening all the time anyway, and I don’t think that we should be afraid of stepping up to the plate.”