The publication of a paper in the elite US journal Science on May 20th from a team of scientists at the J Craig Venter Institute in the US described experiments claiming to the creation of the world's first synthetic cell. The announcement has been received by the mainstream western media with amazement leading to headlines such as "Catholic Church warns Scientists not to play God" and "Has Venter made us all Gods!"
The scientist-entrepreneur Venter has pioneered genomics research and played a major role in the sequencing of the human genome, the genetic material contained in each of our 75 trillion cells which serves as a chemical blueprint for the human species. All cells whether found in higher life forms such as animals and humans or whether in simple life forms such as bacteria, depend upon the presence of genes for survival and reproduction. The full complement of genes found in the cell is referred to as the genome and contains all the information required by the cell to reproduce itself and in the case of higher life forms, to reproduce the complete organism. By a crude analogy, the genome can be likened to software and the remainder of the cell likened to hardware, which together produces a functional or computing cell.
The Science of the Breakthrough
The team at the Venter Institute has been working for over 15 years to try to answer a very important biological question namely "what is the minimum number of genes required to make a living cell?" To address this question, Venter and his team have been studying the simplest known living creature, a bacterium called Mycoplasma mycoides whose genome has a total of only 475 genes. By way of comparison, the human genome is thought to contain as many as 25000 genes. The Venter team's paper published on May 20th in Science demonstrated technology in which all 475 genes of the Mycoplasma mycoides genome, which had been sequenced previously by the group, were synthesised chemically in a test-tube, stitched together to form a complete genome and then transplanted into another closely related but distinct species of bacterium called Mycoplasma capricolum. This caused the Mycoplasma capricolum bacterium to transform into the Mycoplasma mycoides bacterium demonstrating that a completely synthetic genome could reprogramme a living cell once transplanted into it. This led the Venter team to claim that they had created the first synthetic cell which they called "Synthia." For good measure, these scientists also inserted a genetic "watermark" into the synthetic genome to establish laboratory origin of their synthetic genome and cell!
The research marks a major technological achievement since even this small genome of 475 genes is made up of over a million chemical units (termed AGTC) joined together to form a long string of DNA. The research also means that the technology needed to answer the key question of what is the minimal number of genes needed by a living cell to continue to grow and replicate is now in place allowing the Venter team to remove genes one by one from the 475 found in the Mycloplasma mycoides genome until it loses its ability to reprogramme a recipient cell. Using the software analogy, Venter's team will delete lines of code one by one until the software stops working thereby identifying the essential lines of code required for life.
The reaction of western society to this landmark research has been typically extreme. Newspaper columns have been full of varied opinions ranging from hysteria claiming that Venter is playing God at the peril of humanity to accolade bordering on worship ascribing divine status to Venter for creating new life!
No doubt, this technology raises ethical questions as in the near future it will be possible to engineer or reprogramme bacteria on a scale not achieved before, the long term consequences for life on this planet of which are not possible to predict should such bacteria be released into the environment.
So how should Muslims view Venter's work and what does Islam say regarding the development of such technologies?
Firstly, we should understand what has and has not been achieved by the research of Venter's team. Venter's team has definitely not created a new life form but has reprogrammed an existing life form into another very closely related existing life form. The synthetic genome built by Venter's team was not original but a replica of an existing genome found in nature and is synthetic only in the method of construction and not in informational content. That is, Venter's team did not write the software, they merely copied it. Furthermore, Venter's team did not synthesize the recipient cell into which the synthetic genome was transplanted, they used a closely related bacterium found in nature. Therefore, Venter's team copied the software from one computer and transferred it onto another computer, a practise that is illegal in the western capitalist economy. Therefore, it is more accurate to describe Venter's team's claim to having created the first synthetic cell not as "playing God" but rather as "plagiarising God!"
As Muslims we believe that Allah سبحانه وتعالى is the supreme Creator who created the universe from nothing and who sustains it through a system of fixed universal laws governing the behaviour of matter. He سبحانه وتعالى created life within the framework of the universal laws and not outside of them. Allah سبحانه وتعالى says:
بَدِيعُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ ۖ وَإِذَا قَضَىٰ أَمْرًا فَإِنَّمَا يَقُولُ لَهُ كُنْ فَيَكُونُ
"Wonderful Originator of the heavens and the earth when He decreeth a thing, He Says unto it only: Be and it is." [Al-Baqara, 2:117]
إِنَّ فِي خَلْقِ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ وَاخْتِلَافِ اللَّيْلِ وَالنَّهَارِ وَالْفُلْكِ الَّتِي تَجْرِي فِي الْبَحْرِ بِمَا يَنْفَعُ النَّاسَ وَمَا أَنْزَلَ اللَّهُ مِنَ السَّمَاءِ مِنْ مَاءٍ فَأَحْيَا بِهِ الْأَرْضَ بَعْدَ مَوْتِهَا وَبَثَّ فِيهَا مِنْ كُلِّ دَابَّةٍ وَتَصْرِيفِ الرِّيَاحِ وَالسَّحَابِ الْمُسَخَّرِ بَيْنَ السَّمَاءِ وَالْأَرْضِ لَآيَاتٍ لِقَوْمٍ يَعْقِلُونَ
"Behold! In the creation of the heavens and the earth; in the alternation of the night and the day; in the sailing of ships through the ocean, for the profit of mankind; in the rain which Allah sends down from the skies, and the life which He gives therewith to an earth that is dead; in the beasts of all kinds that He scatters through the earth; in the change of the winds, and the clouds which they trail like their slaves between the sky and the earth; here indeed are Signs for a people that are wise" [Al-Baqara, 2:164]
These verses encourage humanity to discover Allah سبحانه وتعالى through His سبحانه وتعالى creation and experiments such as those performed by Venter's team help us to better understand Allah سبحانه وتعالى creation. The chemical process of life within the cell also operates according to these fixed universal laws such as the systems that read the instructions within a genome and translate them into chemical life. Therefore, the work of Venter's team has uncovered some new aspects of these laws and confirmed some others, while the technology developed works according to these systems and laws created by Allah سبحانه وتعالى. Venter's research has in fact demonstrated that even the simplest bacterial life form is in reality incredibly complex, requiring hundreds of genes that code for the cellular machinery necessary for growth, movement and reproduction. For all of these genes to have evolved simultaneously by random represents an incredible if not miraculous event in the history of this planet. For them to have become organised into a functioning genome by random, while the machinery required to read and translate the genetic chemical code into life originated independently and about the same time again by random and all within a cellular structure where the optimal temperature, salinity and acidity were present by random, represents an incredible sequence of events that atheists and evolutionists are simply unable to provide a credible explanation for. In reality, the discoveries of pioneering science should only increase the believers' conviction in the creative power of Allah سبحانه وتعالى while provoking thought in the minds of atheists and agnostics as to how extraordinarily complex and organised living systems are.
The ethical debate surrounding the developments from Venter's team will continue and Muslims should provide an Islamic perspective upon this issue. By uncovering the mechanisms by which genomes control cells, like the software of a computer, the work of Venter's team opens the door to understanding the role of individual genes in the processes of cellular life which may help us to better understand diseases such as cancer as well as those due to bacterial infections, thereby opening the door to the development of new medicines and possibly cures. Islam has sanctified human life and encourages medical treatment. This is based upon several evidences including the hadith reported by Imam Ahmed from Anas (ra) who said that the Messenger of Allah صلى الله عليه وسلم said: "Allah سبحانه وتعالى has created the illness and the cure. So seek the cure."
Therefore, experiments such those published by Venter's team last week should not be prohibited but encouraged. However, such work should not be the basis for humanity to raise herself to the status of Allah سبحانه وتعالى failing to acknowledge His سبحانه وتعالى mastery and knowledge in the creation of the simplest forms of life.