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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 25th year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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Are we to become gods?

2 December 2014

Genetic engineering and our ability to "tweak" organisms to suit our specific needs has made dramatic progress in recent decades.

Now it has been reported that scientists have begun making enzymes from artificial genetic material made in the lab.

This is seen as big news, since it paves the way to creating more complex molecules that could be the precursor to new life forms constructed completely from scratch.

Of course the mere thought that we could build an organism from scratch must strike fear into the heart of those who believe there is only one God and that only God can be the "creator" of life.

This BBC story reports on the activities of the group who have made these significant breakthroughs.

I find it interesting that there is no mention of ethics committees or other oversight that you would expect to be involved in anything that has the potential to create totally new life forms from scratch.

Right now, the researchers are focusing on how these "XNAs" can be used in the treatment of disease but the obvious elephant in the room is the fact that we are getting awfully close to creating real, living organisms from nothing but the raw materials found in nature.

I wonder, given the ongoing pressure on the planet's resources and the need to sequester carbon at a rate that will mitigate climate change, whether the quest for a synthetic life-form that can achieve these goals will become a priority.

Imagine coming up with a moss or plant-like form of life that was able to self-replicate (ie: reproduce), sequester carbon and also act as a viable food source -- whilst thriving in even the harshest environments of drought or extremes of temperature. Such a synthetic organism would have the potential to right the wrongs of the past and ensure that our species could continue to grow and thrive right here on Earth.

Unfortunately, such a goal would be fraught with peril and risks.

What if the organism had some unforeseen side-effect?

What if it mutated "in the wild" and became too good at sequestering carbon, effectively staving the rest of the planet's plant-life of the CO2 it needs in order to survive?

What if, through some natural evolutionary change, it became poisonous -- perhaps as a survival mechanism that would protect it from its greatest threat -- us.

Think of all the issues associated with genetically engineered organisms and then multiply that by a very big number.

So, should we become Gods? Or should we be content to know our place in the universe?

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