The Common Good

Synthetic Life: The Final Frontier?

There are long stories and short stories. Stories that people in a hundred years will be talking about, and stories that will fade in a few months. Most of the time, the op-ed pieces and the late-night news chatter focus on short stories. Last week -- while news of who won what election and the implications for the fall election dominated most of the week -- one of the most important long stories of the year hit the news cycle: Dr. Craig Venter announced that he and his team had created synthetic life. While some scientists question the grandiose claim, many admit that it is indeed a large move forward. Steve Jones, professor of genetics at University College London said in an interview:

"The idea that this is 'playing God' is just daft. What he has done in genetic terms would be analogous to taking an Apple Mac programme and making it work on a PC -- and then saying you have created a computer. It's not trivial, but it is utterly absurd the claims that are being made about it."

The ethical and theological question about the limits and possibility of this new technology are yet to be worked out. I know the promise of this new synthetic life for my son, who struggles with Neurofibromatosis type I. Also, the promise of cheap and clean biofuels to replace oil can be a siren call. But the possibility of human abuse also remains a concern. Could human greed and violence make Dr. Venter's work dangerous? Will we be abusing the new technology for war?

The most important story of our lifetimes may have started last week, and we let it go mostly unnoticed. The future is here and we Christians have to start thinking theologically about the work of synthetic life. It is indeed a brave new world.

(Below, the video of Dr. Venter announcing the creation of the synthetic cell).

portrait-ernesto-tinajero1Ernesto Tinajero is a freelance writer in Spokane, Washington, who earned his master's degree in theology from Fuller Seminary. Visit his blog at

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