On the verge of creating synthetic life

Craig Venter made headlines back in 2001 for sequencing the human genome, then he went on to trying to map the oceans biodiversity, and currently he’s working on a project to create the first synthetic lifeforms – micro-organisms that can produce alternative fuels, and according to this presentation … hes very very close to achieving that!

The talk covers the details of creating brand new chromosones using digital technologies. What makes this so amazing is that this technology has the potential to change the world, it would allow humans to create Synthetic Bacteria that are engineered to perform specific reactions: produce fossil fuels, make medicines, combat global warming1 etc.

In a recent interview with New Scientist Venter described how this technology would hopefully reduce our dependency on fossil fuels2:

Over the next 20 years, synthetic genomics is going to become the standard for making anything. The chemical industry will depend on it. Hopefully, a large part of the energy industry will depend on it. We really need to find an alternative to taking carbon out of the ground, burning it, and putting it into the atmosphere. That is the single biggest contribution I could make.

Not everyone seem’s too happy with this, with accusations that Venter is trying to play God. How much you subscribe to that view depends on one’s own religious perspective. I was encouraged to come across a wonderful critique that addresses this question from a Muslim perspective, which is well worth reading3, the author offers a conclusion of sorts:

I approached Dr Venter after the lecture and asked him whether any religious groups had raised objections about his work (I do wonder what he thought of a hijab-clad woman asking him such a question). He replied in the negative, reminding me that his work did not begin until the project had been subjected to a 1.5 year ethical review. He in turn asked me: “Why? Should there be [any objection]?”. After hearing the facts, and mulling it over, the only answer that came to my mind was: “No”, and upon further reflection, I still stand by my answer – and Allah knows best.

If Venter succeeds the implications specifically for the Pharmaceutical and Chemical Industries as well as the world at large are profound.

  1. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2007/06/08/nbiofuel108.xml[back]
  2. New Scientist, Issue 2626 page 57[back]
  3. MuslimMatters.org, Craig Venter Playing God[back]

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