Playing God

“Men ought not to play God before they learn to be men, and after they have learned to be men, they will not play God.”   Paul Ramsey

Attempts to create synthetic life in a laboratory is no longer science fiction.  Cloning experts, genetic engineers and atomic physicists have all fiddled with aspects of the world that many believe should remain the preserve of some higher power. But for one group of scientists in particular, playing is a serious business. They are seeking to create life itself, and in doing so could push God aside.

Some would say that these scientists are not playing God, but copying God. At present they can only build synthetic versions of organisms that already exist, using their decoded genomes as instructions. Even designer organisms built from scratch will be stitched together from synthetic versions of genes that already exist. Is this truly the creation of artificial life?

A team of stem cell researchers in Israel recently announced their success at creating the world’s first synthetic embryos from mice stem cells.  Researchers at Rehovot’s Weizmann Institute of Science believe that mouse embryos could hold the key to end animal testing and offer new solutions to healing humans.

Researchers grew the stem cells in a specially designed artificial womb for 8 days where they developed a rudimentary brain, flowing blood, an intestinal tract and a beating heart. Fortunately, after only 8 days, the equivalent of 4 months of pregnancy for a mouse, they stopped growing. Not that this will slow the research down.

Jacob Hanna, a biologist at the Weizmann Institute is already working to replicate this technology using human cells with the hope of eventually producing artificial models of human embryos, the equivalent of a 30-to-50-day old pregnancy. For a normal pregnancy, at 40 days basic organs have already formed, as well as tiny limbs and fingers, and has a heartbeat.  

The company vision, Hanna claims, is to use these “entities” to get cells that can be used for transplantation. Embryonic blood cells might be collected, multiplied and transferred to an elderly person in order to reboot the immune system.  Another concept would be to “grow embryonic copies of women with age-related infertility by collecting the entities gonads which could be further matured in a lab or via transplant into the woman’s body to produce youthful eggs.”

Hanna is already planning to use his own blood or skin cells (and those of a few other volunteers) as the starting point for making synthetic human embryos. WOW, soon his lab could be swimming in hundreds or thousands of tiny mini-mes—all genetic clones of himself.

As far as the ethics of his research, Hanna’s is almost certain that an artificial embryo made from stem cells and kept in a lab will ever count as a human being but just in case, he has a contingency plan to make certain there is no confusion.  He believes it is possible to genetically engineer the starting cells so the created “entity” never develops a head or lungs, or heart or brain.

The only saving grace, if there is one, is that fewer than 1 in 100 attempts to mimic a mouse embryo was successful and, those that did succeed developed abnormalities, including heart problems. Hanna is also adamant that at the moment, synthetic human embryos cannot graduate from jar life to real life without a placenta and an umbilical cord connected to a mother.  

Another research team at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), led by biologist Shoukrat Mitalipov, is working on a way to generate artificial human eggs with properly separated chromosomes, fertilize those eggs with sperm and grow them in the lab.  If they develop normally, they believe they could be used to treat infertility and even enable same-sex couples to have genetically related children.  So, what do you get when you fertilize an artificial egg with human sperm?

Are scientists going too far and ‘playing god’ in their claims that they can create life, or is this the start of a scientific revolution? Will mankind soon be able to design a new form of life to suit our needs? Because scientists have the ability, should they use it?

Unfortunately, there may be fewer objections to the idea of scientists creating new life than one would suspect. According to some within the religious community, the idea of playing God is not supported by religious texts.  “God gives us the keys to the car saying, you have the keys, just don’t crash the car.”

Source:  This startup wants to copy you into an embryo for organ harvesting by Antonio Regalado, Technology Review; Researchers Create Artificial Eggs, Chimeric Sperm, and Synthetic Embryos by Ronald Bailey, Reason; It’s life, but not as God planned it by David Adam and Ian Sample, the Guardian

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