The would-be creator of synthetic life recently delivered this this year’s Dimbley Lecture for the BBC (Edge has the transcript) and used the occasion to call on the public to get a better grip on science:
… as science has advanced, it has gone far beyond the immediately sensed world. It is now a world filled with dark matter in space, x-rays, gamma-rays, ultra violet light, DNA, genes, chromosomes, and bacteria that live in and around us in staggering numbers. We can’t detect these directly, yet we feel the consequences of all of them. We are also now bombarded by information on wars, acts of terror, climate change and global warming, devastating storms, fuel shortages, emerging infections, flu pandemics, HIV, stem cells, animal cloning, genetically modified plants, and now the possibility of synthetic life forms, all while trying to cope with complexities of our daily lives. It is no great surprise then that there is a global resurgence of fundamentalism, a desire to get back to what appeared to be a simpler time, and a time when our primary senses and simple rules appeared to determine our life outcomes.
But I believe such a view is both simplistic and dangerous because it avoids the issues we need to face.
Our planet is in crisis, and we need to mobilize all of our intellectual forces to save it. One solution could lie in building a scientifically literate society in order to survive.
And, of course, we can’t talk about Craig Venter without talking about his genome:
I chose to decode my DNA because in the complex debate concerning deterministic views of genetic outcomes and the fears that many have voiced about revealing all their genetic secrets. I as a leader in this field, wanted to show that we don’t have to fear our genetic information. Our genetic code is not deterministic and will provide us very few yes-no answers. It will, however, provide probabilities concerning outcomes that we will eventually be able to influence. It seemed far better to me to use my own genome, rather than trying to convince anyone else that it was ok for them.
He added that he believes laws against genetic discrimination are necessary as we enter the age of widespread genome sequencing.
Venter also addressed the ethics of creating synthetic life… sort of:
One of the most significant and unique features of our research in synthetic genomics that often gets overlooked by the news media, is the long history, starting from the beginning of this work in 1995 and continuing today, of ethical review. As with the past 30 years of molecular biology, the organisms being designed cannot survive outside of the laboratory and are subject to strict containment. While we don’t want students doing this work in their basements, this new field is stimulating an exciting new interest in biological studies.
A few other bits from Venter’s lecture:
+ He says too many people “turn their brains off” when it comes to science and he argues that science education needs to be more focused on problem solving and less on memorization.
+ Venter predicts that we are at the beginning of a pattern of exponential growth in genomic technology, similar to what we’ve seen in electronics and telecommunications.
+ From that growth will flow advances in synthetic biology, which he believes will hold answers for addressing global warming and energy production.
+ And we also find out that he’s a rapid metabolizer of caffeine, so it looks like his multi-cup a day coffee habit probably won’t do him in.
While we’re on the topic of Venter, make sure to check out Rick Weiss’s piece in the Washington Post this week about synthetic biology. As you would expect, Venter gets quite a share of the attention, but the article focuses on a other efforts, too. And it includes this kind of quirky fact: the CEO of DuPont wears a pin-striped suit made from a chemical known as PDO, which was produced by partially synthetic bacteria.
Earlier on blog.bioethics.net:
+ Craig Venter on Stephen Colbert
+ Craig Venter on the ethics of creating synthetic organisms
+ What is Craig Venter up to now?