May 21st, 2010
09:01 AM ET

Friday's intriguing people

Craig Venter

Scientists have turned inanimate chemicals into a living organism in an experiment that raises profound questions about the essence of life. Venter, the U.S. genomics pioneer, announced Thursday that scientists at his laboratories in Maryland and California had succeeded in their 15-year project to make the world's first "synthetic cells" - bacteria called Mycoplasma mycoides.

The bacteria's genes were all constructed in the laboratory "from four bottles of chemicals on a chemical synthesizer, starting with information on a computer," Venter told the Financial Times. The research - published online by the journal Science - was hailed as a landmark by many independent scientists and philosophers.

CNN: Scientists create a living organism

Financial Times: Scientists create synthetic life form with a computer and four bottles of chemicals

Sister Margaret Mary McBride

After the nun approved of an ethics committee decision to abort the fetus of a gravely ill woman at a Phoenix, Arizona, hospital, McBride was "automatically excommunicated by that action," according to Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix. The Catholic New Service reports that the unidentified patient was 11 weeks' pregnant and had pulmonary hypertension. Doctors at St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center determined the condition carried a near-certain risk of death for the 27-year-old mother if the pregnancy continued.

"If there had been a way to save the pregnancy and still prevent the death of the mother, we would have done it. We are convinced there was not," health care officials who operate the hospital said in a letter to Olmsted, according to CNS. But the bishop said that "the direct killing of an unborn child is always immoral, no matter the circumstances, and it cannot be permitted in any institution that claims to be authentically Catholic," CNS reports.

McBride, an administrator at the hospital as well as liaison to the diocese, has been reassigned to other work, CNS reports.

Catholic News Service: Nun excommunicated, loses hospital post over decision on abortion

Dennis C. Blair

The president's top intelligence adviser has announced his resignation. Blair, director of national intelligence, is a retired four-star Navy admiral who has served in the post since January 2009. His office oversees 17 federal agencies of the U.S. intelligence community, including the CIA, FBI and Department of Homeland Security.

Blair's resignation comes two days after the Senate Intelligence Committee released a report that sharply criticized the National Counterterrorism Center, overseen by Blair's office, for failing to coordinate intelligence activities properly to detect the alleged attempted Christmas Day airline bombing in advance.

CNN: Obama's top intelligence adviser resigns

Rob Richer

The retired CIA officer plans to make a 3,200-mile bike ride across the country in September to honor his slain comrades. The Washington Post reports that five agency officers and two contractors were killed in a December suicide bombing near Khost, Afghanistan, when a Jordanian double agent got into an agency base camp, claiming to have information about al Qaeda operatives.

Richer, a 56- year-old former Marine, told the newspaper that the CIA officers, whose names - by law - cannot be revealed in public, deserve recognition. “They serve and lose their lives, but they remain anonymous,” Richer told the Post. “They don’t get a parade.”

The Washington Post: Cross-country bike ride to honor CIA officers killed in Khost attack

Robert Vicino

If the end is near, the 56-year-old real estate entrepreneur is ready. The Los Angeles Times reports that Vicino is selling berths in a 13,000-square-foot bunker near Barstow, California. When renovations are complete, the former Cold War government communications center will house 132 people for up to a year, according to Vicino.

Vicino told the newspaper that to reserve a space behind the 3,000-pound door costs $5,000 - half of that for kids - and to buy a four-person room, just shell out $50,000. “I’m careful not to promote fear,” Vicino told the Los Angeles paper. “But sooner or later, I believe you’re going to need to seek shelter.”

Los Angeles Times: Fallout shelters for a new generation

soundoff (47 Responses)
  1. Scientist

    The first synthetic cell is not quite true. They introduced the synthetic genetic material into an already existing cytoplasm enveloped with cell membrane. Not to mention all the RNAs and proteins already present in the cytoplasm, how about mitochondrial DNA.

    May 21, 2010 at 2:17 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Michael

    This is a great discovery and it should provide some vast insight into future scientific research but, It should not be allowed. Ignoring the moral issue, we have the issue of creating life where there should not be. What if whatever we create kills a lot of animals that exist. Nature is very organized and if we throw a wild card into the mix it would throw the entire system off balance. It is too dangerous to pursue.

    May 21, 2010 at 2:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jeff

      I'm sorry to say we've already done that just fine. Genetically modified plants , pesticide resistant weeds and insects, antibiotic resistant microbes. We've been that wild card for centuries. While we haven't hand made these changes to organisms by direct genetic engineering, we've driven their evolution towards these forms. If anything this is a more controlled environment for creating genetically unique organisms than we've already been accidentally exercising.

      May 21, 2010 at 2:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • Paul

      Jeff – take a look at Food Inc to see how GM foods have allowed Monsanto and their ilk claim IP ownership over our food chain. Where does this leave the future for GM cells and their usage.... sounds like again another route to capitalise and control. The only reason for such reserach to gain support is a commercial application. In the early days, the miracle cures are thrown out as the raison detre – there's no profitiability in curing cancer – give me a break.

      May 21, 2010 at 6:24 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Jeff

    Why do things like this always have to be about god (or the lack thereof). What this guy has done is an incredible technological advance. We're all too busy looking for negatives and reasons to turn this into some microcosm of our own belief structures. Just step back and marvel at what people CAN accomplish. Sure the technology could have dangerous applications, but what new technology doesn't? Give a person long enough they can weaponize literally anything. Why get worked up about this particular technology that has the potential to do so much good when applied?

    May 21, 2010 at 2:21 pm | Report abuse |
  4. john

    Hopefully, this will make release to all those religious fools that believing by faint is believing without proof. Science is proof. That's why the church is so afraid of science; science could eliminate all the church's customers and make those lazy priests having to get a real job.

    May 21, 2010 at 2:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • paulr504

      The Vulcans got it right I tell you

      May 21, 2010 at 3:49 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Edwin

    So many people bickering...

    I'm with Jeff here. This has nothing to do with whether God exists or not, or whether man was meant to do this sort of thing. It is a totally cool accomplishment, not some dark nefarious plot for a B-rated movie.

    Rather than debating religion, why not debate whether we can now create bacteria to effectively eat up oil spills, or bacteria that could absorb massive amounts of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. Or maybe bacteria that could safely eat toxic chemicals like dioxins or PCB's or whatever - things that are very nasty to most current forms of life.

    Or maybe they can work to create bacteria that can help replace damaged organs, effectively extending medicine as we know it.

    May 21, 2010 at 3:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sorel

      I think we should be proud as human for this guy's success! We did it! Yei!
      I believe we have finally given the first step into making a future better human, no more disease and "Thanks Venter" replaceable organs.
      We will live longer, right?

      May 21, 2010 at 4:40 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Dona

    @Qodex: Your point is well taken and relevant – but there are going to be Mengeles along the path, and I don't think we can afford to eschew knowledge itself simply because an evil being may turn it to an evil purpose. I would not presume to deny the existence of evil intentions in the minds of sick, twisted beings, and yes, knowledge CAN fuel evil intentions as effectively as it fuels the opposite, but can we truly obfuscate knowledge on the grounds that it will be used for bad as well as good purposes? How then will we learn to overcome bad purposes and evil intentions? Further, will we not also lose the opportunity to discuss such a question as we are doing here, and would that not be a profound loss? As for conscious evolution – merely an intriguing thought for a future I will not live long enough to see, but which is intellectually interesting in this context. BTW – I've never seen Stargate, but hear it's a really good show! Thanks for the intelligent conversation – keep thinking, even if you disagree with me!

    May 24, 2010 at 11:39 am | Report abuse |
  7. Dona

    @Dr. Greg – You came very close to grasping my (admittedly badly stated) point – that "God" and the human spirit are essentially one and the same – which I personally can only describe within the context of an ever-expanding universal consciousness. It is a way of reconciling the common threads of principles that seem to hold true for religions, and the beauty of what science continues to unveil as we pursue a greater depth of knowledge, understanding, and . . . enlightenment.

    May 24, 2010 at 11:44 am | Report abuse |
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