Synthetic Genes Come To Life

Image Courtesy of: sfgate.comYesterday’s announcement that a team of 23 scientist led by Craig Venter has created synthetic genes and implanted them into living bacteria has already been reported in my morning newspaper (if it weren’t Venter, it would probably have taken a few days).

Here’s the Venter Institute press release about it.

Here’s an h+ article from August 21, 2009 about a "master class" in synthetic life taught by Venter and George Church. It includes a video of Venter’s TED talk on the topic.

Here’s a Wired article about George Church’s quest:How the Personal Genome Project Could Unlock the Mysteries of Life.

Last, but possibly not least, in terms of an amusement factor… back in 2007, I interviewed Dr. Alan Goldstein for my (then) podcast NeoFiles and then had the content transcribed, edited and posted on 10 Zen Monkeys.  Goldstein, through the auspices of The Lifeboat Foundation was offering someting called an A-Prize 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." (Bolding mine). I’ve emailed Dr. Goldstein an article about Venter’s latest hoping to claim the prize by being the only one who remembers this offer.  At the time, it seemed that $26,300 had been raised to offer for this prize. Now, the offering appears to have shrunk down to $4,960… maybe I got the first figure wrong? (Lifeboat people are welcome to correct me).  Or the money went to Bernie Madoff?…

Anyway, Dr. Goldstein held a rather gloomy (some might say paranoid) view regarding the likely results of creating artificial lifeforms.

Here’s a fragment:

RU: So why is this development a threat to life?

AG: Because the behavior of an entity that is capable of using non-biological mechanisms of replication can’t be predicted. We have experience with biohazards, which are biological organisms that are dangerous. And we have experience with chemical hazards. But we have no experience with Animats. So it’s the apex of hubris for us to sit here and say, "Well, we know how this thing’s going to behave." Because we have no bloody idea how this thing’s going to behave.

RU: Do you have a vision of how things could go awry? There seem to be many science fictional possibilities.

AG: No, no — it can be very simple. For example, the most probable scenario is a viral nano-biotech weapon that goes out of control. Imagine a viral weapon that has added to it the capability to coat itself with diatom-like silica structures that would make it highly aerosolizable, and then to disperse it. And then, make it also highly resistant to chemical corrosion – to digestive acids. We’ve never seen a virus that can coat itself in spiky glass nano-particles. And no matter what anybody says inside the government or in industry, we don’t know how to deal with that. And yet, that could be made — right here, right now. A large enough facility – a major pharmaceutical company or DARPA or the DOD could make it right now if they wanted to.

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