Venter’s Hype? Skeptical Views

Last week, I hustled up a post about Craig Venter’s announcement that he and his team had created synthetic genes and implanted them into living bacteria.  The chatter on this was already mixed. Exciting new breakthrough or mostly hype?  

So I emailed Dr. Alan Goldstein, who is offering something called an A-Prize through the Lifeboat Foundation.   The prize is for "the person or organization responsible for creating an Animat/Artificial lifeform with an emphasis on the safety of the researchers, public, and environment OR the person or organization who shows that an Animat/Artificial life form has been created."  Goildstein refers to this as "breaking the carbon barrier."  Every once in awhile, a news item prompts me to email Goldstein and jokingly try to collect the prize, by being the first person to inform him about an Artificial Life form.

Last week, I hustled up a post about Craig Venter’s announcement that he and his team had created synthetic genes and implanted them into living bacteria.  The chatter on this was already mixed. Exciting new breakthrough or mostly hype? 

So I emailed Dr. Alan Goldstein, who is offering something called an A-Prize through the Lifeboat Foundation.   The prize is for "the person or organization responsible for creating an Animat/Artificial lifeform with an emphasis on the safety of the researchers, public, and environment OR the person or organization who shows that an Animat/Artificial life form has been created."  Goildstein refers to this as "breaking the carbon barrier."  Every once in awhile, a news item prompts me to email Goldstein and jokingly try to collect the prize, by being the first person to inform him about an Artificial Life form.

This is what Dr. Goldstein has to say: "While technically impressive, the achievement of Venter’s group is basically a linear extension of previous work in the growing field of Synthetic Biology.  In fact, Genetic Engineers have been inserting large fragments of synthetic DNA and even synthetic ‘minichromosomes’ into cells for decades… including higher eucaryotes with much more sophisticated regulatory systems than the cell used by Venter’s group: e.g. mice, and even human cells. These synthetic genes are usually fully functional.  In fact functionality is necessary for the production of many of the biotechnology industry’s most valuable products. The most important implication of Venter’s work is to re-emphasize the completely unregulated state of global research on both Synthetic Biology and Artificial Life.  Synthetic genomes will be rapidly followed by fully synthetic cells which, in turn, will give way to hybrid cells containing nonbiological components (biomolecular-materials composites).  Many of the most dangerous avenues of research, e.g. the insertion of nonliving materials into cells, remain completely unregulated!  We are literally racing to break the Carbon Barrier (TM) without the slightest regard for what may await us on the other side.  The most probable outcome of this race is detailed in my essay "I, Nanobot" which is widely available on the web."
 

Goldstein is being a bit circumspect. Leave it to h+ magazine’s favorite skeptic, Athena Andreadis to shine a harsher and more amusing light on the subject.  In her Huffington Post column, under the title "Venter’s Celebrity Bacterium: The Faucet Drip That Would Be a Monsoon," Andreadis seems to tear Venter and co. a new one for overselling their latest move: "The Venter work is not a discovery, let alone a paradigm shift. It’s a technological advance and even then not of technique but only of scale."

 

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