Edge 234 — January 24, 2008
(3,200 words)




Borders Bookstore — Columbus Circle
January 29, 2008 7:00 PM

(Digital Life Design)

A conversation with
Craig Venter & Richard Dawkins

(Moderator: John Brockman)

The Future of Selection
(Die Zukunft der Selektion)
by Florian Kessler

Craig Venter wants to email life
(Craig Venter will Lebewesen e-mailen)
by Christian Stöcker


In Brief: What Are You Optimistic About?
by James Joseph

Venter Institute Scientists Create First Synthetic Bacterial Genome

Publication Represents Largest Chemically Defined Structure Synthesized in the Lab

Team Completes Second Step in Three Step Process to Create Synthetic Organism

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.

pdf download
(click here)

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,
one species becomes another. In talking to Edge about the research, Venter noted the following:

Now we know we can boot up a chromosome system. It doesn't matter if the DNA is chemically made in a cell or made in a test tube. Until this development, if you made a synthetic chromosome you had the question of what do you do with it. Replacing the chromosome with existing cells, if it works, seems the most effective to way to replace one already in an existing cell systems.We didn't know if it would work or not. Now we do.

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:

Right now we're all focused on the genetic code because it's something we can define and the environment is so many orders of magnitude more complex to define, but we're having this trouble with a single cell with a few hundred genes; we as humans have a hundred trillion cells with 23 thousand or so genes, and an infinite number of combinations, so defining our environment is going to be a lot more complicated than that for a single cell. We decided the only way to answer these questions was to make a synthetic chromosome to understand minimal cellular life.

Today, he announced that he's done it. It's big news. Very big news.

Click here for the announcement from J. Craig Venter Institute.


John Brockman and contributors Douglas Rushkoff, Paul Steinhardt, Helen Fisher, and John Horgan discuss What Are You Optimistic About?: Today's Leading Thinkers on Why Things Are Good and Getting Better. Spanning a wide range of topics What Are You Optimistic About? is an impressive array of what world-class minds have weighed in to offer carefully considered optimistic visions of tomorrow.

January 29, 2008 7:00 PM
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A conversation with
Craig Venter & Richard Dawkins
(Moderator: John Brockman)

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.


Richard Dawkins & J.Craig Venter

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.

Synthetic Genes

Brockman brought Craig Venter with him to the conference in Munich—the key participant in the earlier meeting.  An American entrepreneur, molecular biologist, and the first person to decode the genome, he personifies the future of biotechnology.  Not only that, in recent years Venter has more than doubled the number of genes in the public databases, and right before the meeting in Connecticut, he applied for a patent on the first-ever artificial life form—his Mycoplasma laboratorium, after a self-propagated cell division, will be the first life form to carry a synthetic chromosome. And according to Venter, this will likely be before the end of 2008.

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.


Translated by Karla Taylor

German Language Original

January 22, 2008


Craig Venter wants to email life (Craig Venter will Lebewesen e-mailen)
By Christian Stöcker

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. ...

CRAIG VENTER: LIFE VIA EMAILStart Slide Show: Click on photo (6 photos)

It 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.

The event is called DLD. Previously this stood for the "Digital Lifestyle Day," but it is now "Digital Life, Design."  The attendees are first-rate—in part because the event is so opportune: many of the international business stars to whom the publisher pays tribute in Munich will subsequently travel on to Davos for the World Economic Forum. And so this year we are running into people like Richard Dawkins and Marissa Mayer of Google in the hallways.  And Jason Calacanis, who invented the concept of blogging, chatted with Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales—oh yeah, and even Naomi Campbell will make an appearance today.

Bio-revolutionaries amidst technology fans

The excitement is palpable, latching on to topics like the new markets in India and China, social networks, and above all the mobile network.  Although it possible that this last issue seems especially urgent because everyone is constantly trying to get on the Internet, and failing.

Amidst all the enthusiasm for technology, one conversation had more explosive potential than the talking points of all the old and new digital entrepreneurs put together.  Only hardly anybody noticed.  DLD is always so crowded that you have to stand for the interesting events. But when genetics entrepreneur Craig Venter and genetics revolutionary Richard Dawkins, who took on the entire religious Right with his antireligious tome The Selfish Gene, got up on stage yesterday to talk about a "gene-centric world view," noticeably fewer people were standing than is often the case. And this even though their talk contained more revolutionary statements and wild forecasts by far than the other presentations looking toward future.

Venter, who last made headlines when he published his personal genome in full on the Internet, made brazen claims, but nobody reacted. Venter insisted that climate change represents a much greater risk to humanity than genetic engineering, which could actually help fight it.  For example, with genetically manipulated microbes capable of absorbing CO2: "We can change the environment through genetic engineering."  John Brockman, who is the literary agent of both Dawkins and Venter, had the role of moderator, but let Dawkins take over. When Venter began to speak of specific genetically engineered correctives for the environment, however, he abruptly woke up.  Somebody once explained to him that when you talk about these subjects in Germany, "it causes an uproar—but everyone appears so calm!"  And he is right.

"Life is becoming technology"

The 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 to ecosystems.

Dawkins knows what he is talking about—in the ’70s he acheived fame with his book entitled The Selfish Gene. At the start of his talk, he declared that "genes are information." From this Venter transitioned into the depiction of a future in which genetic information could be sent over email for the receiver to reassemble as a living being: "We can already reconstruct a chromosome in the laboratory." Last October, the Guardian already reported that Venter would soon be the first to create an entirely artificial life form—something he is accomplishing even as he speaks of a future in which genes are software and humans, at their discretion, can produce life that conforms to their wishes.  The question of what happens when genes, which behave all too selfishly in Dawkins’ own portrayal of them, breed freely did not come up.

At the same time as this staggering conversation took place on the podium, between a radical genetic engineer and a mastermind in the science of genetics, who evoked a future with artificially designed life and DNA-printers that is already emerging from their current scientific revolution, directly next door a group of Web Entrepreneurs and venture capitalists were engaged in a heated discussion about social networks and earning opportunities.  But next to the two dignified grey haired figures onstage, they suddenly seemed a little colorless—almost even a little outdated.

Translated by Karla Taylor

German Language Original


IN BRIEF: What Are You Optimistic About?
By James Joseph

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.

Edge Foundation, Inc. is a nonprofit private operating foundation under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.

John Brockman, Editor and Publisher
Russell Weinberger, Associate Publisher

contact: [email protected]
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