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Nothing Wrong With A Little Frankenstein

By Chris Mooney

Sunday, December 1, 2002; Page B01

If only Victor Frankenstein had some media savvy, he might have been J. Craig Venter. Rather than living in dread of his appalling creature, he could have assembled a panel of bioethicists and theologians to bless it, applied for a Swiss government grant to research it, and hired an investment bank to explore an initial public offering -- FrankenCell Inc. -- to exploit the results of his research.

But the fictional Frankenstein created by novelist Mary Shelley went on to a grimmer fate, and greater fame. And Craig Venter is, well, Craig Venter. The first researcher to fully sequence a bacterium in 1995 and president of Celera Genomics in 2000 when it raced the National Institutes of Health to decode the human genome, Venter has exposed nature's secrets with Promethean gusto -- and more than a little arrogance.

His latest project, the artificial creation of a new form of bacteria in order to determine the "minimal genome" required for sustaining life, strays into Mary Shelley's territory like never before. The idea is to take the simplest known bacteria, a urinary tract pest know as M. genitalium, remove all of its 517 genes, and then reinsert a pared-down and artificially constructed string of DNA that includes just enough genetic material to get the cell going again. If it works, Venter and company will be able to claim that they know just how many genes are the minimal number needed to make the most basic form of life -- because they've actually done it. Venter just received $3 million from the Energy Department to pursue the idea, setting off a new round of public attention to a project his researchers once dubbed "Frankencell."

But in reality, the Frankenstein model of bioethics, based on the novel published in 1818, is a misleading framework for thinking about Venter's goal of "creating life." The question should be whether his work will help us understand and protect life. The Frankenstein anxiety only obscures the difference between the fictional scientist who secretly created, then abandoned, his living creature, and who shirked responsibility for it even after it had killed a person, and Venter, who -- at least so far -- has proceeded in a measured manner.

In fact, Venter, acutely aware of the comparison to Frankenstein, appears to have done his best to defuse it. In 1998, when Venter saw that his "minimal genome" inquiry was heading toward an act of creation, he publicly called for and preemptively assembled an ethical review before delivering anything new in a petri dish.

That is the appropriate way forward, for while scientists must take into account the ethical ramifications of their work, they can't be held hostage to an ethical code that prohibits the pursuit of knowledge. Surely, there's little reason to suspect Venter will end up suffering any of the angst that plagued his fictional forebear, Dr. Frankenstein, who in Shelley's novel warns, "Learn . . . by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow."

Still, it's no surprise that Venter's activities have prompted allegations that he's a mad scientist playing God. These worries are not allayed by the thought that Venter has said he will make sure his living organism lacks the specific genes it needs to infect people or to live outside the laboratory. If indeed it is acceptable for Venter to create life, does that give him the right to destroy it too? Does this only confirm his legendary hubris?

In some ways Venter's effort to manufacture life, to be overseen by the Nobel Prize-winning geneticist Hamilton Smith, was implied from the very beginnings of the biotechnological manipulation of DNA. The past two decades of genetically engineering a few genes at a time for insertion in various organisms -- Bt corn, transgenic salmon -- always carried the seeds of an attempt to eventually swap all the genes of an organism at once, or artificially synthesize them.

Still, now that we've actually arrived at this point, where Venter could create life in a petri dish, there's a lot of gingerness. "This has major symbolic significance," Dartmouth bioethicist Ronald Green explained when I asked him about Venter's work. "In theology there has been a tendency to plug God into whatever science cannot explain, in this case the very origins of life. But if scientists can actually create life, then at least in scientific terms, there's pretty much not anything else left for God to do."

Most people have faith in God, however. They don't trust scientists. That can be seen in the popular press coverage of Venter -- a 1999 Business Week article about his work was titled "Playing God in the Lab" -- and in the portrayal of scientists in popular culture. The latest James Bond film "Die Another Day," for example, features bad guys who practice a sinister form of gene therapy. There's also "Gattaca," portraying a futuristic world where genetic inheritance determines a person's place in society; "Jurassic Park," with its moralism about arrogant scientists who lose control of their creations; and countless other films bearing messages similar to Shelley's horror story, "Frankenstein." Sure enough, in his 1998 book "Frankenstein's Footsteps: Science, Genetics, and Popular Culture," University College of London science and technology scholar Jon Turney calls Frankenstein "the governing myth of modern biology" and a narrative that's based on "science as a substitute for God" in that most mysterious and profound of acts, the creation of life.

These horror stories have created trepidation about new steps in science, but so far they remain in the stuff of fiction, not journalism. The panel of ethicists convened by Venter directly repudiated Frankenstein-inspired playing God concerns in a paper published in Science magazine in 1999, arguing that the minimal genome research had both benefits and risks but that there was nothing to make it fundamentally out of bounds. Moreover, they wrote that "too often, concern about playing God has become a way of forestalling rather than fostering discussion about morally responsible manipulation of life."

It's not even clear that the inevitable take-home conclusion from a reading of "Frankenstein," at least for a modern sensibility, is that every single possible form of scientific meddling into questions involving life is proscribed. After all, can't we denounce Victor Frankenstein for failing to grasp the gravity of what he has done, and for failing to take responsibility for his creation, without necessarily branding his research as "playing God"?

What does playing God mean? Mankind has been playing God for ages. Isn't saving someone's life playing God, too? Don't some allegedly "unnatural" acts that have been widely accepted by our society, such as childhood vaccinations or birth control, affect the decision of who shall live and who shall die? Would we have it any other way?

Human beings also have been involved in the creation of entirely new forms of life in the past, through the breeding of domesticated animals over the centuries. Charles Darwin himself began "On the Origin of Species" with a discussion of the impressive abilities of pigeon breeders; he termed their activities "Artificial Selection."

The playing God argument is even weaker when it comes to instances in which biotechnology allows us to create or modify life in a way that will undo or correct previous human transgressions, particularly environmental ones. Wired magazine, for example, reported recently about a plan to use biotechnology to undo the ecological damage wrought in Australia by the introduced European carp. The strategy is to genetically modify a variety of carp to sire only male offspring, and then release them into waterways where they will presumably reproduce until there are no remaining females -- thus killing off the invader species. Surely this approach has a strong element of playing God to it, at least as much as does the genetic modification of so-called "Frankenfoods." And yet humans introduced the invasive carp to Australia in the first place, so how can it possibly be wrong to try to counter this damaging action?

Consider yet another telling example, also from Australia. Scientists at the Australian Museum in Sydney are currently embarked upon a project to clone the extinct Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, from the DNA of a well-preserved specimen. The thylacine, a kind of marsupial wolf, was indisputably killed off by humans. In the 19th century, the Tasmanian government offered bounties for dead animals because they were notorious hunters of sheep. An introduced species, dogs, narrowed the thylacine's habitat and provided competition. The last thylacine known to exist died in captivity in 1936.

Now, surely it's a good thing to try and bring back these fascinating animals -- predatory marsupials, of all things -- if we can. Indeed, to hear Australian Museum director Michael Archer describe the justification for the cloning project, as he did to me recently by e-mail, is to see why once again, "don't play God" simply won't fly. "In the end NOT to do these things," wrote Archer, "if technology allows us to do them, is a breach of what I regard to be our moral obligation, particularly if WE are the reason for the problems we are now trying to fix."

We need to get beyond fiction-based arguments against research into pressing biological issues. The argument against "playing God" is frequently an anti-intellectual mantra used to stifle debate about new technologies, the epitome of fear-mongering. The entire Frankenstein approach simply fails to help us think clearly about the attempt to create a microorganism with a minimal genome -- and about other issues on the biotechnological vanguard.

Venter's research has obvious benefits: It could allow us to create minimal organisms that excel at breaking down environmental toxins, producing insulin, or taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and thus battle the greenhouse effect. Learning what actually makes life happen on the bacterial level also could help us better combat microbes such as pneumonia on their own terms, invading their bodies before they invade ours and hobbling the most virulent strains through genetic tinkering -- what University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Arthur Caplan, who headed up Venter's bioethics panel, terms "the ultimate revenge."

But Venter's project has risks. The knowledge he's seeking to obtain could also allow terrorists to create minimal bacteria with extremely virulent properties. Venter and Smith have volunteered to self-regulate and suggested they will hold back publishing all the details of their research, but we may need more stringent rules to ensure that other scientists don't create dangerous life forms. Once we leave behind the one-size-fits-all don't-play-God approach to biotechnology, we can easily have that regulatory discussion, and evaluate a new technology like Venter's on a cost-benefit basis. Granted, that discussion may be a bit less scintillating than the "debate" that you get from "Jurassic Park." But that's a good thing. In fact -- to use the No. 2 fear-mongering analogy in the life sciences after "Frankenstein" -- we should welcome the arrival of that "Brave New World" of bioethics. It's been long overdue.

Chris Mooney, who lives in Washington, writes frequently about science, bioethics and technology.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company
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