on craig venter & his new life form

There’s been a lot of hype – & some overwrought responses – surrounding the announcement that Craig Venter & his research team have ‘created’ a novel life form (a mycobacterium with a completely artificial genome). I wasn’t going to weigh into it.

And I’m still not – but I am going to reproduce in full an excellent comment by PZ Myers. (Go back to Pharyngula if you’d like to join in the comments there.) If after reading it you want more, then here’s the place to go: the ‘Reality Club’ at The Edge has an extensive & high-powered discussion around the issue.

I have to address one narrow point that is being discussed in the popular press and here on Edge: is Venter’s technological tour de force a threat to humanity, another atom bomb in the hands of children?


There is a threat, but this isn’t it. If you want to worry, think about the teeming swarms of viruses, bacteria, fungi, and parasites that all want to eat you, that are aided (as we are defended) by the powers of natural selection–we are a delectable feast, and nature will inevitably lead to opportunistic dining. That is a far, far bigger threat to Homo sapiens, since they are the product of a few billion years of evolutionary refinement, not a brief tinkering probe into creation.

Nature’s constant attempts to kill us are often neglected in these kinds of discussions as a kind of omnipresent background noise. Technology sometimes seems more dangerous because it moves fast and creates novelty at an amazing pace, but again, Venter’s technology isn’t the big worry. It’s much easier and much cheaper to take an existing, ecologically successful bug and splice in a few new genes than to create a whole new creature from scratch…and unlike the de novo synthesis of life, that’s a technology that’s almost within the reach of garage-bound bio-hackers, and is definitely within the capacity of many foreign and domestic institutions. Frankenstein bacteria are harmless compared to the possibilities of hijacking E. coli or a flu virus to nefarious ends.

The promise and the long-term peril of the ability to synthesize new life is that it will lead to deeper understanding of basic biology. That, to me, is the real potential here: the ability to experimentally reduce the chemistry of life to a minimum, and use it as a reductionist platform to tease apart the poorly understood substrates of life. It’s a poor strategy for building a bioweapon, but a great one for understanding how biochemistry and biology work. That is the grand hope that we believe will give humanity an edge in its ongoing struggle with a dangerous nature: that we can bring forethought and deliberate, directed opposition to our fellow organisms that bring harm to us, and assistance to those that benefit us. And we need greater knowledge to do that.

Of course more knowledge brings more power, and more possibility of catastrophe. But to worry over a development that is far less immediately dangerous than, say, site-directed mutagenesis, is to have misplaced priorities and to be basically recoiling from the progress of science. We either embrace the forward rush to greater knowledge, or we stand still and die. Alea iacta est; I look forward to decades of revolutionary new ideas and discoveries and technologies. May we have many more refinements of Venter’s innovation, a flowering of novel life forms, and deeper analyses of the genome.

One thought on “on craig venter & his new life form”

  • I agree with what PZ is saying. He’s been particularly on song over the past week or so. (Maybe the topics are jiving with the book he is writing?)
    I’ve been meaning to try put a few words out myself on some of the various side-topics, in particular the “understanding the genome” aspect.
    I’m not very familiar with bacterial genomes, but for eukaryotes at least a concern I have is that genomes are structures, not just sequences, yet our approach to understanding genomes tends to treat them as sequences of “information” rather than structures and/or molecular complexes (except in when looking at very small portions closely). The higher-order physical nature of them is being left out thus far (out of necessity; not enough is known). I can’t help feeling this may be needed to get a “proper” understanding of genome function.
    The subject of viral, etc., threats makes me think of past attempts at biological weapons. A book I have read is a Jeanne Guillemin’s account of a group of American scientists looking into the potential source of an anthrax outbreak in Russia. Also, it’ll be interesting to see if climate change shifts the locations particular microbial populations and if that has an impact.
    LIke PZ says, I think there are more important things to worry about.

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