Archive for May, 2010
I cannot describe the mix of emotions I experienced this morning as I read about Craig Venter’s latest accomplishment. Awe, excitement, fear, envy, abject terror, you name it.
Venter’s crew has created a self-replicating life form with a designed genome.
Whether you believe it is “a turning point in the relationship between man and nature” or that “he has not created life, only mimicked it,” this is a watershed moment in my view. I admit I’m being a bit breathless here. Perhaps this is nothing new or exciting for those steeped in the biological sciences. But it is the first time the true potential for biotech is becoming clear for me.
If you want a career path that will put your children in the center of high-tech business in 20 years (and all business is, or will be, high-tech), then get them prepped for synthetic biology.
Venter’s team took a pre-sequenced genetic code from an existing bacterium, made several changes to the sequences in a computer, then synthesized the resulting digital code into chemical DNA. Finally, that DNA was inserted into another bacteria that had been emptied of genetic material. The new DNA “took over” the bacterium, and demonstrated the capability to make copies of itself.
This is just too cool for words.
I will largely leave the ethical issues for others to debate. Such issues are important and weighty, to be sure. I’m just not equipped to wrestle with them.
Many of you, like me, think patenting naturally occurring, individual genes is, well, somewhat dubious. But this is very different, since something new is being created. In fact, some of the DNA sequences that were inserted are coded versions of the names of Venter and his researchers. (They also included quotations from James Joyce and others.) Definitely hard not to see that as patentable.
[Years ago Carl Sagan wrote a novel called Contact. In the book, scientists discovered that when calculated out to enough digits, the transcendental number pi contained a message. While technically kind of silly, it was still a thought-provoking idea. Signing life forms is nearly this mind-blowing.]
Certainly, they have not yet created life out of whole cloth. In effect, Venter has taken a painting, erased a few things, added some brush-strokes, and signed it at the bottom. Hardly the same as painting the Mona Lisa from scratch. And clearly years of work needs to be done. Still, the commercial potential for this over the next 20, 50, 100 years is incalculable.
(Of course, the danger is that now we might not be here in 100 years.)
There may be ways to synthesize biofuels, plastics, chemicals, drugs, etc. And not by dinking around with existing genes, but by creating entirely new ones. Of course, that only covers materials synthesis. What about biological machines? Colonies of oil-eating organisms? Neural networks? Intelligence? This is biotech cubed.
Bacteria are now truly poised to become the microchips and chemical labs of the 21st century.
Disclosure: I hold no position, either long or short, in any stocks mentioned here.