Friday, January 25, 2008

Did You Feel Your World Shake?

The announcement yesterday in Science, that Dr. Craig Venter's team has built an entire genome for a bacterium from scratch, shakes my world. While they have not gotten their creation to function, this is a step in that direction.

Their hope is that they can eventually program this simple critter to make stuff: drugs, fuels, food. If they pursue a drug, there will be many levels of public review. But biofuels aren't subject to FDA. It will be interesting to see the debates on this one. I suppose we will get to see which journalists and politicians understand biology (most of our presidential candidates, if they took biology, took it long before the biotech revolution).

They use stealthy terms like "synthetic biology," but break it down: synthetic is "man made" and biology is "the study of living organisms." What is going on here is one of the boldest acts in history: to create a living organism from scratch. This is stunning... in every sense of the word.

I am excited about the possibilities, yet uneasy that our science is proceeding faster than our ethics. Should there ever be limits to the pursuit of knowledge? Those tricky "unintended consequences" tend to show up after these bold breakthroughs. On one level, it is easy to understand what these scientists are attempting to do; on other levels, it is incomprehensible. We will not know for years what changes this will unleash.

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