Thursday, May 20, 2010

Give this man his Nobel

Craig Venter presides over a second Genesis.
Like Shelley’s protagonist, Dr Venter and Dr Smith needed some spare parts from dead bodies to make their creature work. Unlike Victor Frankenstein, though, they needed no extra spark of Promethean lightning to give the creature its living essence. Instead they made that essence, a piece of DNA that carries about 1,000 genes, from off-the-shelf laboratory chemicals. The result is the first creature since the beginning of creatures that has no ancestor.
It seems that the development was long expected, and that synthetic DNA is not new. Craig Venter created the first "functioning" artificial virus as long ago as 2003. That is the heart of this story, and all similar stories: that we now take accelerating change so much for granted. As the image shows, this achievement was possible because productivity in DNA synthesis has been increasing at a pace which looks exactly like Moore's law, but faster.

Most philosophers will not be surprised, but how will most people react to passages like the following? I don't expect any real change in the philosophy of the man in the street: we will live our lives, and these episodes will  never quite sink in:
It demonstrates more forcefully than anything else to date that life’s essence is information. Heretofore that information has been passed from one living thing to another. Now it does not have to be. Non-living matter can be brought to life with no need for lightning, a vital essence or a god. And this new power will allow the large-scale manipulation of living organisms.
As I think back on the developments we have seen in Science and Technology in the recent past, it strikes me that I cannot even begin to imagine what the world, or we humans, will look like in 20 years time. In many ways, we will fall far short of Star Trek (I would be amazed if we managed inter-stellar, or even regular inter-planetary travel) but who knows in how many ways we will exceed that fantasy?

Postscript: More from Sciencedaily.

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