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Published: Monday, 3/20/2000

Public needs discussion of bioethics

"It's alive," shrieks Dr. Frankenstein, watching the monster arise. "ALIVE! Hahahahahahah!"

Phony old Hollywood images of scientists creating life in the laboratory have a real counterpart in modern genetic research. Scientists are trying to create life from genes, proteins, and other essential ingredients.

The little-known effort has drawn a loud call for more public awareness and debate from a group of the world's leading authorities on bioethics. Issued in the Dec. 10, 1999 edition of the journal Science, the statement itself got precious little attention from people preoccupied with the holidays and Y2K.

Creation of life in the laboratory, they said, may trigger political, ethical, and religious outcries that make past debates over human cloning seem mild.

The group included Dr. Arthur L. Caplan, of the University of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics; Dr. Mildred K. Cho, of the Stanford University Center for Biomedical Ethics; and Daniel McGee, of Baylor University's department of religion. Their statement called attention to a major advance toward creating life, reported in the same issue of Science. In the advance, researchers announced discovery of the minimum essential number of genes a single-celled organism needs to survive and reproduce in the laboratory.

Researchers from The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGER) in Rockville, Md., and Duke University did the research. They used a microscopic bacteria, Mycoplasma genitalium, that has become a basic tool of scientists trying to define the biochemical necessities for life. M. genitalium has only 517 genes - the fewest in any known one-cell organism. Humans, in contrast, may have 100,000 genes.

Using the process of elimination, they disrupted function of one gene after another, and checked to see if the bacterium could still function and reproduce. They concluded that the organism can thrive with as few as 265 genes. About 100 of the essential genes, by the way, are mystery genes with no known function.

For ages, philosophers have pondered: "What is life?" In strict genetic terms, for the single-celled organism group of living things, life may be those 265 genes.

Knowledge of this minimal set of genes is important, researchers said, as a step toward creating "minimal" life forms that perform a specific function.

Put the minimal gene set together with other cell components inside a microcapsule container. Then insert genes that order the cell to make an industrial or commercial product - perhaps a drug to treat a human disease.

Bacteria already are engineered to produce insulin, industrial chemicals, and other useful products. A minimal-gene organism might be engineered to make products more efficiently, with fewer undesirable waste products. These organisms also may be factories of the future for products that people today can't even imagine.

That's one potential use of human-created life forms, according to the bioethics panel.

Others on its list are less positive, including accidental or intentional creation of organisms that harm the environment or become agents of bioterrorism or biological warfare.

"Without prior discussion of ethical issues," the ethicists warned, "the general public cannot develop a framework or common language to discuss acceptable uses of a new biomedical technology, or even whether it should be used at all."

Society should heed the bioethics panel's advice. Ethics and law have lagged behind science many times in the past in ways that invited public overreaction. Here's one opportunity to prepare for an ethical dilemma as it approaches.

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