Designer genomes: a chassis for building almost anything?

Grauniad: I am creating artificial life, declares US gene pioneer

Craig Venter, the controversial DNA researcher involved in the race to decipher the human genetic code, has built a synthetic chromosome out of laboratory chemicals and is poised to announce the creation of the first new artificial life form on Earth.
Pat Mooney, director of a Canadian bioethics organisation, ETC group, said the move was an enormous challenge to society to debate the risks involved. “Governments, and society in general, is way behind the ball. This is a wake-up call – what does it mean to create new life forms in a test-tube?”

He said Mr Venter was creating a “chassis on which you could build almost anything. It could be a contribution to humanity such as new drugs or a huge threat to humanity such as bio-weapons”.

Mr Venter believes designer genomes have enormous positive potential if properly regulated. In the long-term, he hopes they could lead to alternative energy sources previously unthinkable. Bacteria could be created, he speculates, that could help mop up excessive carbon dioxide, thus contributing to the solution to global warming, or produce fuels such as butane or propane made entirely from sugar.

“We are not afraid to take on things that are important just because they stimulate thinking,” he said. “We are dealing in big ideas. We are trying to create a new value system for life. When dealing at this scale, you can’t expect everybody to be happy.”

Big ideas, big dreams, possibly big horrors. It seems that’s always the way with the really big innovations.

It should be an interesting time in the evo-creo forums, as the creationists move the goalposts again on what does or does not count as speciation and try to argue that human intervention means that speciation can’t happen naturally while simultaneously arguing that only God has the power to create distinct “kinds”. The ethics and intellectual property mavens will also be closely examining the propriety of granting a patent to Venter for his new organism (or will the patent be only for the technique to create such organisms? The article is unclear).

Yet another science fiction scenario moves from the fantastic into the mundane. What next?

Categories: ethics & philosophy, Science


2 replies

  1. See The Loom.

    To see if my hunch was right, I checked in with Heather Kowalski, spokesperson for the J. Craig Venter Institute. This morning she sent me an email confirming what I had suspected…
    Dr. Venter and the synthetic genomics team at the Venter Institute have not yet created synthetic life. While progress is being made toward this goal, it has not yet been achieved. When they do so, they will submit the work to a scientific journal for peer review with the hope that it will be published. Any announcements or publications on the synthetic organism are likely still months away.

  2. Thanks, Ian. I hoped you might drop by.
    Interesting that merely the possibility (eventual probability?) is exciting such a media beatup, then. The Guardian is only one of the papers that covered this story.

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