What happens when we create life in our image?

In the movie “I am legend,” Will Smith dominates the screen for the majority of the film. I personally believe he deserved an Academy award for his performance. It actually never ceases to amaze me how we can get caught up  in a movie or TV show to such an extent, that we forget that it is staged and can be turned off at any moment. In this day and age, with systems like Netflix [which are finally in Israel] and Hulu [which is not yet in Israel — boohoo], we have absolute control over the run of what we are watching. We can skip ahead, we can skip backwards, we can stop the play and come back to it the next day. You would think that we would internalize the fact that this is all make-believe. Yet these TV shows and movies still make us laugh and cry and shudder. Who knew that this was evolution’s plan all along.

In the movie, “I am legend,” there is a short introduction where a clearly respected scientist makes the grand declaration that we finally have cured cancer. Almost immediately, in the next scene, we see the devastation wrought on the world. We find out later on in the movie that 90% of the human population has been wiped out by this “cure”, and another 5% has been turned into zombies that are more than happy to chomp on the last 5% that are still regular humans. While it is far too easy to dismiss this as yet another zombie movie, it really is about isolation and faith and trust. You simply have to see the movie to understand, and I believe it will be worthwhile for most people watching.

I don’t know if the director and writers intended to send a subliminal message that we should fear progress. If so, I would be somewhat disappointed. My brother once told me of the story related to the first atomic bomb test. There were those physicists that theorized that the release of so much energy in the atmosphere would literally ignite the oxygen around the world and turn the earth into a flaming fireball that immediately wiped out all living things on the planet. At one point, after the first test was successful, a reporter asked the physicist how he could have taken such a risk? If the physicists had even a small chance of being right about the apocalyptic nature of the atomic bomb, how could they allow themselves to test it. There are many reasonable answers to this question, such as the fact that the Nazis were working on similar technology and would have done the exact same test at some point. But the answer the reporter got was beautifully typical of modern  human thought. The physicist replied “how else would we know?”.

So basically, if the atomic test was successful, as it was, we would know that this was not an issue. On the other hand, if the doomsday predictors were correct, they wouldn’t be anyone left to chastise the unnecessary risk that was taken. Admittedly,  this was quite an extreme point of view. But the logic was sound.

I just read an article about human made bacteria that have the tiniest genome ever. These living bacteria, formally classified as an artificial life form, have only 470 genes. The point of this experiment was to demonstrate that life could be created with very few actual genes encoding the key functions of the bacteria. The authors go on to state that a third of these genes are probably still unnecessary, but it will take further research to prove this. Let us assume that the authors are correct in their assumption. While we are talking about a simple bacterium, the idea that it would only take 300 genes to code a living organism is astonishing. Our human DNA has millions of genes and we are still unaware of the purpose of most of them.  But in this artificial life form, it is possible to get to a point where every gene is clearly delineated in terms of its makeup and purpose. This is literally a process of decoding the language of life.

Admittedly, viruses manage to do a great deal of damage with a lot less genetic material. But viruses are a special class of existence. In this particular case, we are talking about a full form bacterium that can intake nutrition and can replicate itself without any outside assistance. This is ultimately the definition of life, and viruses  don’t have the same degree of independence.

It should come as no shock to anyone that we will eventually find the purpose for every part of the entire human genome.  And we will all hope, that along the way, we will not create new life forms that are not fuzzy and cute bacteria in a petri dish. The hope is that we will not create, innocently, the destroyer of worlds. But that’s a risk we’re going to take. Because within the ethical and moral standards we have set for ourselves, in terms of the types of research we can do, there is still a tremendous amount that can go wrong. But the only way to know which is the right path and which is the wrong one, is to explore and experiment and try.

It’s definitely possible that a combination of isolated human tissue along with computer simulations of certain bodily functions, will become a substitute for ever again testing anything outside of a very controlled laboratory. It’s possible that Ebola could be studied with impunity within a less secured lab. We are not there yet, but we are getting closer. As robots can take over more and more of the dangerous work that is done with high risk items, we will be able to run tests  without sacrificing the welfare of anyone. And by the time a certain vaccine or medication is presented for FDA clearance, there will be far more research to back it up, because this research will not depend on injecting an unknown substance into humans.

Will the title of such a paper one day read “human made human-embryos have the most efficient genome ever”. I would be surprised if such a paper does not appear in mainstream journals  within the next few decades.

I’ve mentioned in the past that Jewish tradition  teaches us  that our role in existence is to correct those things that, apparently, G-d purposely left undone.  In “fixing” the world, we contribute to the completion of G-d’s vision of a perfect world. The question is whether creating artificial life was part of G-d’s plan, or if we have started stepping on his toes, creating life in our image. I guess we will just have to continue along this path and see what happens. Because ultimately, how else we know?

Thanks for listening.

About the Author
Dr. Nahum Kovalski received his bachelor's of science in computer science and his medical degree in Canada. He came to Israel in 1991 and married his wife of 22 years in 1992. He has 3 amazing children and has lived in Jerusalem since making Aliyah. Dr. Kovalski was with TEREM Emergency Medical Services for 21 years until June of 2014, and is now a private consultant on medicine and technology.