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Government OKs Controversial Research Into Artificial Life Forms

  • synthetic life

    A scanning electron micrograph image of the synthetic bacteria of M. mycoides JCVI-syn1. (Craig Venter Institute)

  • Man-Made Cells

    Scientists have developed the first cell (shown here) controlled by a synthetic genome -- a revolution some are calling artificial life. (Science / AAAS)

Man-made forms of life are just fine in Uncle Sam's book, a new federal study into synthetic biology concludes.

The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues has just released the conclusions of months of research, deemed necessary after scientists in May trumpeted the creation of a new artificial organism by inserting laboratory-made genes into an existing bacterial cell.

No, that wasn't a new form of life, the panel cautioned -- but it sure did raise some interesting issues.

"Is it ethical to create new life forms? What are the religious concerns?" asked Arthur Caplan, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Bioethics. Scientists are hard at work creating similar life forms, he told FoxNews.com, for a variety of useful purposes. But there's little oversight at present into this emerging field.

"At some point these critters will come out of the factory and into the real world to do things -- and we don't have any rules at present," Caplan said.

In May, genome pioneer Craig Venter brought the issue to a head when he announced progress in his quest to build a microbe from scratch. A team at his lab in Maryland used an artificially synthesized genome to bring to life a bacterium that had its own genetic material scooped out.

This report begins by poking holes in Venter's premise, that he and his scientists had created "artificial life" with this work.

"The report comes out and says, look, we're not convinced new life forms are being made," Caplan told FoxNews.com. And it stresses that man-made life "still remains remote for the foreseeable future."

But the report, titled "New Directions: The Ethics of Synthetic Biology and Emerging Technologies," nonetheless urges an exhaustive investigation into current research, to ascertain just how far off artificial life is, what scientists are currently working on and what role the government should play in oversight of the controversial science.

"In the practical day to day, we've got this technology being used right now to make medicines and polymers that aren't getting released. The dream is to make critters, microbes, that can do useful things," Caplan told FoxNews.com.  

The possibility of such genetically engineered life forms was enough to worry some environmentalists, who criticized the commission's report on Thursday.

"We are disappointed that 'business as usual' has won out over precaution in the commission's report," Eric Hoffman, biotechnology policy campaigner for Friends of the Earth, told the Reuters news service. "Self-regulation equates to no regulation."

Caplan called the report encouraging, although he said it fails to recommend revisiting the technology in a few years, after scientists have built upon Ventor's and other's work.

"I'd like to see them convene again in two or three years and say, how are we doing here?" he said.