THE THIRD CULTURE
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Venter Institute Scientists Create First Synthetic Bacterial Genome
On August 27th, at Eastover Farm in Bethlehem, CT, Edge held its annual summer event: Life: What A Concept. The transcript of the event was published by Edge earlier this month as a downloadable PDF.
At the end of June, Craig Venter had announced the results of his lab's work on genome transplantation methods that allows for the transformation of one type of bacteria into another, dictated by the transplanted chromosome. In other words,
This was a major advance in the field of synthetic genomics. We now know we can create a synthetic organism. It's not a question of 'if', or 'how', but 'when', and in this regard, think weeks and months, not years.
At the time, Venter said:
Today, he announced that he's done it. It's big news. Very big news.
COMING SOON — LIVE IN NYC — JANUARY 29TH 7:00PM
It's not everyday you have Richard Dawkins and Craig Venter on a stage talking for an hour about "Life: A Gene-Centric View". That is occured in Germany, where the culture has been resistant to open discussion of genetics, and at a DLD (Digital Life Design), a high-level Munich conference for the digital elite — the movers and shakers of the Internet — was particularly interesting. Below is a video clip from the event followed by the transcript.
VENTER: I was looking at the world from a genome-centric view; the collection of genes that put together lead to any one species. But as we traveled around the world trying to look at the diversity of biology, we came up with larger and larger collections of genes.
When we look at cells as machines, it makes them very straightforward in the future to design them for very unique utilities. I think all these speak against that one quotation.
DAWKINS: It’s more than just saying you can pick up a chromosome and put it in somewhere else. It is pure information. You could put it into a printed book. You could send it over the Internet. You could store it on a magnetic disk for a thousand years, and then in a thousand years’ time, with the technology that they’ll have then, it would be possible to reconstruct whatever living organism was here now. What has happened is that genetics has become a branch of information technology. It is pure information; it’s digital information; it’s precisely the kind of information that can be translated digit-for-digit, byte-for-byte into any other kind of information.
VENTER: Biology is the ultimate nanotechnology and it can now be digitally designed and reconstructed.
DAWKINS: What I do have a problem with is the possible unforeseen practical consequences of some of the sorts of things not just you are doing, but many other people are doing. I suspect that the phrase “playing God” is actually kind of— It’s a bit like the boy who cried ‘wolf,’ because accusing a scientist of playing God is obviously stupid, but what is not obviously stupid is accusing a scientist of endangering the future of the planet by doing something that could be irreversible.
BROCKMAN: Evolution is now man-made. It’s cultural rather than Darwinian—open source.
VENTER: We see major species’ evolution was from species taking on new chromosomes. When they take on a new chromosome, it’s like adding a new DVD full of software to your computer—it instantly changes the capabilities and the robustness of what you can do.
DAWKINS: …that Darwinian selection means one species goes extinct and another species takes over. That is NOT Darwinian selection. That is species extinction. It’s a totally different kind of process.
The viruses you’re talking about, the bacteria you’re talking about, are kind of free sprits who are out there in the sea and are out there in the air. But there’s another whole class of them who have—not agreed—but who have come together in gigantic clubs, gigantic societies, which is you and me.
VENTER: I’m certain we will find bacterial life on Mars. Whether it’s actively replicating or not still is a question.
We will find life as a universal concept. Anywhere we find highly intelligent life, I think we will find it’s a design concept, it’s an electronic concept, it’s an information concept. We can transfer life across the universe as digital information; somebody else could, in their laboratory, build that genetic code and replicate it. So perhaps publishing my genome on the Internet had more implications than I thought. …
We have not yet created a cell driven by a man-made chromosome. Based on the chromosome transplant experiment, though, we know that that is definitely possible. I’m hopeful it will happen this year.
DAWKINS: In response to Craig Venter today, I am prepared to change my mind if he gives a better answer to my question about molecular taxonomy. Maybe now is not the time to do it, but I’m on the brink of changing my mind. But I remain highly skeptical.
I certainly would think it highly highly unlikely that there’s anything like a soul that survives the death of the brain.
22. Januar 2008
The future of Selection: Scientists Craig Venter and Richard Dawkins in Munich (Die Zukunft der Selektion)
Digital or biological? There was a moment during Munich's conference about the future at DLD ( Digital Life Design) this past Monday, that felt like the exchage of a baton. After a rather dull discussion about social platforms on the internet a burly man entered the stage, introduced himself as John Brockman and proclaimed that the topic of the hour would now be biology.
John Brockman was not just another moderator. In the late summer of 2007 he hosted the now legendary symposium 'Life: What a Concept!' at his farm in Connceticut. This was where six pioneers of science had jointly proclaimed a new era: After the decyphering of the human genome soon whole genomes sequences could be written. That would be the beginning of the age of biology.
Brockman’s second guest was enthusiastic about these prospects. British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, known primarily for his books The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion, evoked how seamlessly an eventual "synthetic biology" could fit into Darwin’s theory of evolution. For Dawkins, new microbes resulting from human reproduction and microbes fabricated in the lab are equally products of Nature’s big experiment—irreversible, yes, but also unstoppable. Since man is at the mercy of the forces of evolution, there is no reason for him to shrink from conducting genetic experiments.
Craig Venter, who takes obvious pleasure in his Institute’s rapid advancements, assumed a more cautious stance. Fully aware of Europe’s reservations towards genetic engineering, he stressed in particular the urgent need for forced intervention in Nature’s architecture: the disturbance by humans to the environment is leading to a state of such irreparable damage that the only possible way out of a catastrophe is to push forward. He hopes one day to create a synthetic gene out of his manipulated chromosomes, which for example could reduce our emission of carbon dioxide by converting light into hydrogen.
Venter made a good case for his work, denounced the restrictive legislation in genetics that many nations have put in place, and described in detail the future selection process, which at the very least would be less chaotic than before. In his introduction as moderator, Brockman postulated in jest that thanks to Venter’s research, before long any pet cat could be transformed into a dog—Venter however distanced himself greatly from any manipulation of animals and spoke only of intervention in molecular biology.
Understandably, he won’t allow any allusion to his playing a God-like role. Given the countless uninterrupted transitionss in life forms, the very concept of a Creator can only be a myth. Laughing, he bowed down to Dawkins anti-religious polemic The God Delusion: where there is no God, one also cannot play God.
by Karla Taylor
January 22, 2008
Venter wants to email life (Craig
Venter will Lebewesen e-mailen)
A pioneer in the field of genetics can envision a fantastic future in which genetic codes are sent by email and then reassembled as living beings at the other end. Or so Craig Venter forecast at an Internet conference in Munich. He also hopes to solve the problem of global warming—with designer microbes. ...
is a dense network. At the annual gathering of the digital
elite, organized by Burda Media in Munich, cell phone networks
have barely enough capacity. WLAN and UMTS are groaning
under their full load, as everyone calls, surfs the Internet,
types—everywhere you look people have their Smartphones
and their laptops, and the crowds of Blackberry devotees now
also have an iPhone handy.
amidst technology fans
"Life is becoming technology"
momentum was building and, always one to provoke, Venter was
on the ball. Dawkins’ was inevitably the role of
Devil’s advocate and he asked whether Venter considers
that all life is technology. "Life is machinery,"
he answered, "which as we learn how to manipulate it, becomes
a technology." Dawkins, who wore shirt sleaves and an
eccentric white and gray tie, and who came across a bit like a
friendly math teacher, suddenly found himself delivering a tentative
warning: the unchecked intermingling of gene pools could have unforeseen
consequences. He drew a parallel to the unforeseen devastation
that introducing new microbes, plants, or animal species can cause
Translated by Karla Taylor
Are You Optimistic About?
To non-scientists, it may not be obvious that science tends to be an optimistic endeavour. While academics working in the arts or humanities may be more equivocal abut the state of the world, those working in science tend to be hopeful, at least about furthering the limits of human knowledge and the possibilities of what can be known in the future. These are essentially optimistic goals.
What Are You Optimistic About? is a collection of essays from "the world’s leading scientists and thinkers" addressing the 2007 annual question posed by John Brockman on his website www.edge.org. Like its predecessors from previous years, it covers an impressively wide range of topics, including the futures of religion, the origins of the universe, climate change, neuroscience, human relationships, medicine, artificial intelligence, communications and psychology, among others. Inevitably, many important ideas get brief, superficial discussion, but as a whole the collection provides an overview of where the work in a number of interesting fields is heading, and makes both engaging and consoling predictions about the future. As Brockman is careful to articulate in his introduction, not all of these things will come to pass, but some certainly will.
Almost all the contributions are written by scientists or at least "thinkers in the empirical world": people Brockman considers to be the new intellectuals of modern culture. Steven Pinker explains why the decline in violence in the world will continue; Dan Sperber considers altruism on the web; and Oliver Morton writes on how solar energy can save the planet. A number of these essays assert confidently that we are living in a time of shifting paradigms, but they rarely agree on precise terms, and some hopes for the future openly contradict others. The most memorable moments in the collection do not come from ambitious contributions on the showstopper science of torpedoed religion, cancer cures and climate reversals. Instead they come when the contributors address wider hopes for human ingenuity, our capacity for progress and problem-solving. The edge question for 2008 is: what have you changed your mind about? This will surely provoke another stimulating array of responses, profiling issues and ideas where recent data are challenging preconceptions and highlighting the topics on the brink of breakthrough and development.