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Peter Byck

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Programming the Code: J. Craig Venter Talks Building DNA (And Organisms) From Scratch... And I Have Questions!

Posted: 06/08/2012 12:16 pm

I saw J. Craig Venter -- Chairman, CEO, and Co-Chief Scientific Officer at Synthetic Genomics -- speak the other night at the opening of the Future in Review conference here in Laguna Beach, Calif. He was funny, self-deprecating, and mind-bending. In his talk, "From Reading to Writing the Genetic Code," he discussed building DNA from scratch; he called it "programming the code." He said they can take a full DNA sequence, place it into an organism's cell, like an algae cell, and then the new code takes over and erases the natural, original DNA, and the cell becomes the programmed DNA's entity. "Not one molecule is left of the old organism," Venter said. (I'm sure I have the jargon wrong, but the concept is there.)

What I want to know now is this: Why does the natural DNA give up so quickly? Why wouldn't it fight off the new DNA as if it were a virus? Are they turning on a particular gene in the synthetic DNA to make it aggressive? This is crazy talk, right? Is this Dr. Frankenstein with access to massive computing? Today's enormous computing ability is what makes DNA code programming possible.

I did get to ask Venter a question. I wanted to get his thoughts on the convergence of a few technologies (the new printers that can make 3D objects, an unhappy employee sending out emails in a WikiLeaks fashion, and cloud computing), creating events that could get his experiments, tests, and unfinished work out into the world. He said my imagination had gone even further than his own, so he didn't have an answer to my "what if."

One of his asides caught my attention: He's discovered that there is cell-to-cell communication going on when the cell is in its natural environment. Take the cell out of the body and things change. We don't understand what that cell-to-cell communication is (and when I use the "we," I mean his team -- of course I don't understand it). So if he's rewriting genetic code or creating it from scratch and putting in into a living thing, then what sort of cell-to-cell communication is he creating that he wouldn't possibly be able to observe, given that he doesn't understand the cell-to-cell communication in the first place? If he takes this to its next step, creating whole plants or eventually animals, and there's this huge unknown component, what does that imply? Anything? A whole bunch of things? I'm using the word "thing" because it's that much of a blank slate.

Venter's work is fascinating. He talks about synthetic beef, chicken, and milk. He doesn't mention cost, but he implies that his methods will use much less water than current methods of beef, chicken, and milk production. But what about that cell-to-cell communication? What happens when we ingest the synthetic food that we have not evolved to ingest? Is it a harmless event? That'd be great. Someone asked if he's creating new ways to create food. Wouldn't that just support the enormous growth of the human population on Earth even more? That's when Mark Anderson, the event's host, chimed in to say that birth rates go down as people's quality of life goes up, implying that readily available food would increase many people's quality of life, in turn suggesting that these food-production methods could even slow population growth.

Venter is clearly aware of the ethical implications of his work. On the same day in 2010, he received word from the president and the pope with their opinions on the ethics. The president supports his work; the Pope is fine as long as he doesn't do it on humans. I wanted to meet Dr. Venter after his presentation, and I joked to my dinner guest, "I want to shake the hand of God."

 
 
 
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