The progress of modern genetics is nothing short of astonishing. This week it was announced that Craig Venter and his team had created the first synthetic life form. But we may need to look a bit deeper.
Digital news outlet Quartz reports:
They made Syn 1.0 by removing the naturally occurring genome of bacteria Mycoplasma mycoides and replacing it with a lightly tinkered version that they made in a lab. This was a unique achievement because Syn 1.0 lived with the synthetic genome.
So the first thing to recognize is that they began with a natural bacteria and replaced its programming—no “new” or “artificial” bacteria was created. Its instructions were merely changed—an amazing feat because in this case the DNA was programmed entirely by computer. Venter calls the computer the true parent of this new “artificial” bacteria.
Another key aspect of this endeavor was defining what the least amount of essential genetic material might be… Here is another key element:
What is “essential” for life depends on the environment that a living cell finds itself in. For instance, the record for the life-form with the fewest genes is held by naturally occurring Tremblaya, which has only 120 genes. But it cannot survive outside its insect host, which is performing many of the critical functions for Tremblaya. That is why Venter’s team wanted “essential” to mean what would be necessary for the organism to live on its own.
This is the first hint of the relevance of the relatively new field of Epigenetics, which sees the activity of genes within the context of their environment. It is interesting to note that Venter’s team had to take this factor into account (without acknowledging Epigenetics directly) and that more modifications will presumably need to be made to the genome for it to live in various environments—like our internal organs or blood stream, or in an oil field or ocean—if it is to accomplish medical or ecological tasks.
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This again does not minimize the achievement in any way, but it does point to the fact that when talking about life, all activity is in relationship to other life and the environment. No life form truly exists on its own. To take this reality a step further, Venter and his team did not create the “world” in which the new life form exists.
And then there is this:
“Though Syn 3.0 is the free-living cell with the fewest number of genes, Venter and his colleagues still don’t know what 149 of those 473 genes do.”
What this means is that without understanding its function, through trial and error, the Venter team had to include 1/3 of genetic material that is deemed to be “junk DNA.”
Using the computer analogy which is now obviously much more than mere analogy, what this breakthrough demonstrates is that our growing knowledge of DNA (which could not have occurred without supercomputers) is really akin to creating a macro or subroutine inside another application (Life).
For those who use Microsoft Office at a high level there is familiarity with “macros”—which are snippets of code that do repetitive functions with the input of a mouse or one keystroke. Photoshop users may know these as more aptly named “Actions”—again these are “scripts of code” that can be recorded to, for example, crop a number of images to a set of dimensions and add other features like effects.
In the example of macros in Office or actions in Photoshop it is important to understand that they “live” in the context of the greater program.
In Microsoft Office the programming tool to create and edit macros (which can also be recorded) is called VBA—or Visual Basic for Applications. This means that all such subroutines must “live” within an Office application.
One might perhaps view Venter’s amazing work and modern genetics as “the Visual Basic for Applications within Life”; without the application known as Life and the host bacteria already in existence, the new genome would not and also could not exist.
Similarly without Microsoft Word already existing, the macro to quickly change all styles in a particular document to another set of parameters would have no useful purpose or value.
It would also have no meaning.
Similarly it is important to keep in mind that the extraordinary achievements in genetics are the result of life already existing—Life is the Microsoft Word or Photoshop within which this “tinkering” has taken place.
It has worked because by decoding the genome there is now an amazingly deep description of the functions of life available—almost like the “user manual” or more aptly the “object model” for living functions using the letters A, C, T and G to represent the active chemicals to instruct and control living functions within us.
But we need to step back and look at the big picture and acknowledge that while the functions have been described, they have not been explained.
There is still no viable explanation for how life came to be (remember that the host for the new genetic material already existed as a bacterium) and also no explanation of how the quality of MIND, which is necessary to devise a set of computer programs, arose from inert or inanimate matter.
The “presence” of a mind with respect to our own computer software is undeniable—Photoshop and Microsoft Word did not evolve except for human invention by programming.
From this very perspective perhaps we can now adjust our attitude to Life and existence to appreciate its actual meaning—and perhaps its lesson for humanity.
The complexity of DNA and its ability to instruct our biological functions may seem mysterious—but we now have a model that helps make its reality more comprehensible—our own recently developed software.
(If our science is several hundred years old since the Enlightenment—computer software has been known for a small fraction of that time.
When we see that the code in our cells operates in the same way as the code in our computers, perhaps we can finally drop the absurd notion of life as an accidental occurrence within nature—and now begin to understand that there must be an immense intelligence at work within nature (as Eckhart Tolle and others have suggested).
Science has begun to tinker with life. Now it must turn its attention to the context within which that tinkering has begun to work: A universe that is not only vast and huge but actually conscious and immensely intelligent.
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