…Until recently … even the most sophisticated laboratories could make only small snippets of DNA — an extra gene or two to be inserted into corn plants, for example, to help the plants ward off insects or tolerate drought. Now researchers are poised to cross a dramatic barrier: the creation of life forms driven by completely artificial DNA. Scientists in Maryland have already built the world’s first entirely [artificial] chromosome — a large looping strand of DNA made from scratch in a laboratory. In the coming year, they hope to transplant it into a cell, where it is expected to [be able to direct] the waiting cell to do its bidding. And while the first synthetic chromosome is a plagiarized version of a natural one, others that code for life forms that have never existed before are already under construction. 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. That unprecedented degree of control over creation raises more than philosophical questions, however. What kinds of organisms will scientists … make? How will these self-replicating entities be contained? And who might end up owning the patent rights to the basic tools for synthesizing life? 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 … place enormous power in a few people’s hands. “Ultimately synthetic biology means cheaper and widely accessible tools to build bioweapons, virulent pathogens and artificial organisms that could pose grave threats to people and the planet,” concluded a recent report by the Ottawa-based ETC Group http://www.etcgroup.org/ , one of dozens of advocacy groups that want a ban on releasing synthetic organisms pending wider societal debate and regulation.

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