Science in Christian Perspective

Letter to the Editor


The Significance of the Synthesis of Biologically Active DNA

A recent front-page article in the local paper was headlined "Major Step Taken Toward Creation of Life". Stories reported by television were even more sensational. In some cases, reports received indicated that man had actually created life. These reports referred, as I am sure most ASA readers are aware, to the synthesis of biologically active deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) by Dr. Goulian and Dr. Kornberg of Stanford University. Without detracting from the significance of the work of Dr. Goulian and Dr. Kornberg, I must confess that I am a little disturbed to note the 'sensationalism' and speculation present in these news media reports.*

My major objection is the use of the term "creation" in describing the research. Let me summarize first, however, the actual accomplishments of Drs. Goulian and Komberg.** The authors synthesized (outside of the living cell) new biologically active DNA using (1) a single-stranded viral DNA as a pattern, (2) two enzymes which were isolated from a bacteria, E. Coli, and (3) the four nucleoside triphosphates which serve as the building blocks for making new DNA. It is important to note that viral DNA (OX174) was required as a pattern to copy. As yet, scientists have not been able to determine the sequence of the four building blocks (nucleotides containing adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine) that make up the basic structure of even the simplest DNA molecule. We do know that each sequence of three nucleotide units has the genetic information ("codon") for determining the position of one amino acid in a protein. However, the order of arrangement of these nucleotide units into the entire DNA molecule is still unknown. This explains why there is a requirement in the studies of the Stanford researchers for a natural active DNA to copy, since no purely synthetic DNA has biological activity. It should also be emphasized that the viral DNA used by Drs. Kornberg and Goulian is much smaller and far simpler than the DNA of living cells. Although scientists have synthesized several biologically active proteins, the enzymes used in these studies are also of unknown structure and have not been synthesized. They were produced by living cells and were isolated by the Stanford scientists from these cells in a nearly pure state.

Although the,findings of Drs. Kornberg and Gouiian do mark a major milestone in the understanding of life, or more specifically, in the understanding of the replication (new production) of viral DNA, the relation of these studies to the "creation of life" is entirely in the realm of speculation. According to Webster's dictionary, creation means "bring into being" and usually implies "formation from nothing" or "formation of something complex from very simple materials". Consequently, the word "synthesize" would appear to be much more appropriate than "create" in describing the above research studies. In addition, biologically active DNA is a long way from constituting "life". Viral DNA has properties of life only in the presence of other living cells. The virus acts by penetrating the cell and taking over the metabolic machinery of the cell. By taking control of the "information center" of the cell, it causes the cell to produce the specific proteins and enzymes required for the formation of new virus. The OX174 virus is made up of about 5500 nucleotide units and contains the genetic formation required for the synthesis of about four to six different proteins of average size. No one knows how many different proteins may be present within a living cell; however, it has been estimated that there is adequate DNA within a living mammalian cell to provide genetic information for the production of 20 million different protein molecules of average size.*** In bacterial cells, the genetic information is adequate for the production of 20,000 different proteins. it should be emphasized that these are only estimates and assume an average size protein and also assume that all DNA is serving as a carrier of genetic information for the coding of protein structure. Nevertheless, these estimates serve to emphasize the difference between the OX174 virus and a living cell. Although scientists may differ in their definition of what constitutes "life", they would all agree that a virus is far less complex than a living cell.

I feel that in directing the news interest of these research findings to "the creation of life" theme, the news reports miss much of their real significance. The understanding of DNA formation is basic to our understanding of the action of viruses, and hence is basic to ultimately finding a means of prevention and control of virus-caused diseases. The understanding of control of DNA formation is basic to understanding bow the cell may literally "lose control" of its metabolic processes as it does in malignant tumors. Since viral DNA can penetrate the living cell, the possibility of inserting DNA fragments containing genetic information into a cell does not appear as remote a possibility as it may have a few years ago. It may become possible to provide individuals, who have a specific enzyme defect, with the genetic information for production of a functional enzyme. Consequently, the understanding of control of DNA formation is basic to ultimately achieving a means of treatment for a wide variety of inherited metabolic disorders, where there is some, as yet unknown, abnormality of cellular DNA.

With all of these potential practical benefits which may ultimately be derived from this biochemical research approach, it seems a little silly, if not absurd, to seek to sensationalize the research findings by speculating on their possible relation to the "creation of life". I wonder if this isn't an effort (unconsciously, perhaps) to replace the worship of God as Creator of life, with the glorification of the achievements of man. The living cell is a marvelously functioning and marvelously controlled piece of metabolic machinery. Consequently, I am not greatly impressed by those who emphasize how man, when he "creates life" will improve upon life as we know it now. One should remember that a malignant cell is a modified cell that, in certain aspects, might be considered an improvement over normal cells. It competes so avidly for amino acids and other nutrients that it often starves the normal cell. Yet, in so doing, it may ultimately lead to its own death as a consequence of destroying organs (blood vessels, etc.) necessary for its survival, Under these circumstances, it survives only because it rapidly divides and invades other tissues. Despite some apparent advantages of the malignant cell, there are few, I believe, who would argue that it is an improvement over the normal cell. I suspect that most of man's modifications of living cells will also prove deleterious. However, I believe there is great hope for the treatment of disease of all kinds, as a consequence of advances in the understanding of life. In my experience, I have found new discoveries in science to deepen my reverence and awe of God who conceived, created and endowed life with the means of propagating itself. God has given man the mind and the will to unravel some of the deeper mysteries of life. Should we not then marvel at the intricacies and wonders of God's achievement?

Gordon C. Mills, Ph.D.
Professor of Biochernistry
Univ. of Texas Medical Branch
Galveston, Texas


*It is of interest to note that the news media have been criticized for their "extravagant" reporting of the Goulian-Kornberg research in Scientific Research (Vol. 3, No. 1, p. 15, 1968).

**An accurate report of this research is presented in Science (Vol. 158, p, 1550, 1967). The original report of Dr. Goulian and Dr. Kornberg is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (Vol. 58, p. 2321, 1967).

***These estimates are taken from H. Busch, "Biochemical Frontiers in Medicine", p. 20, 1963, Little, Brown and Company.