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.

1 comment:

Carl Hammerdorfer said...

Given our experience with kudzu, zebra mussels, and the common dandelion, this makes me a little bit nervous.

On the other hand, a laboratory created life-form that spins wildly out of control and becomes an 'Ice-9' type product that wipes out homo-sapiens might be just the break the planet needs.

On the other, other hand, this appears to be a great new step for homo-sapiens, and consistent with our unfolding destiny. It will be intersting to see what homo-restrictus will have to say about this. GMOs got a lot of shorts in a knot. The argument over LCOs (laboratory created organisms) will make the gmo discussion look like just so much pillow talk.