The Null Device

Synthetic life

Craig Venter (of Human Genome Project fame) has succeeded in creating synthetic life; i.e., of creating a living cell whose genome was entirely written from scratch in the laboratory. Venter's first commercialisation of the discovery will be a deal with ExxonMobil to create algae which absorb carbon dioxide and create hydrocarbon fuel. Beyond that, the possibilities are vast; from the mundane (cancer cures, new terrorist bioweapons, weird new designer drugs for mutant freak subcultures out of a Warren Ellis or John Shirley story) on to the horizon of the unimaginable.

And Quinn Norton says that we've just lost the War On Drugs, but not as badly as the drug lords, whose business model looks as doomed as the RIAA's:

You know what’s a lot easier than all the high minded business about environment, or life extension, or even the scary doomsday 12 Monkeys scenarios? Growing simpler molecule drugs. I don’t mean like aspirin, I mean like heroin and cocaine, THC and hallucinogens. They already grow in plants thoroughly studied, and people are motivated and not at all risk averse about getting those sequences somewhere they can use them. Cooking meth is hard and dangerous science compared to the ability to get a starter of a minimal cell that poops heroin and feeding it growth medium in your closet. We may have lost the drug war, but not as badly as the drug lords have.
It’s still hard to grow drugs in medium. But the whole point of this project is to make it easier. Who will be motivated to put in the work to make it happen? Especially if it’s so bad for organized crime? Drug addicts, frankly. You think they look like street junkies with DTs, but a fair number look like scientists, because they are. Drugs will finally be p2p, and governments and drug lords alike will find out what it’s like to be media companies and counterfeiters in a world of lossless copying and 100Mb pipes. Junkies will be victims of their success, and if we don’t get serious about treating addiction instead of trying to fight chemicals, it’s going to look a lot more bloody and horrid than the RIAA’s lawsuit factory. This is just one vision of what this kind of disruption looks like when people get a hold of it.

There are 1 comments on "Synthetic life":

Posted by: Greg Sun May 23 10:24:56 2010

I read this news item and it prompted a question: isn't it a long step from 'copying an existing (working) genome' to 'creating a new genome that does something useful', like cancer cures and all that? Last time I read on this topic it was difficult to "read" DNA, that is to do the translation from genotype to phenotype. Even predicting the protein that will be produced by a string of DNA is fraught with complexity due to epigenetic codons, junk DNA and so on (analogous to deciphering obfuscated machine code) and then the protein might fold in all sorts of complex ways and be involved in a range of operations throughout the organism. Even when you know the genome and the phenotype, AFAIK it is usually difficult to map features back to genes. So it will be extra hard to design a genome that will produce a given desirable biological function.

These guys have invented a way to implement genes - *if they can be designed*.

[It's been a while since I read on this - I'd be interested to know if I'm wrong.]