Synthetic Biology Breakthrough: Programming Life on Your Computer Screen

by Socrates on May 22, 2010

Usually I don’t post on weekends but the amazing scientific developments of the last couple of days demand that I do so.

Underneath you will find a short summary, some informative videos, relevant links and initial commentary by me and others on Craig Venter‘s breakthrough creation of synthetic life.

This first clip is the original press conference where Dr. Venter provides a brief chronology of the project and discusses some of the ethical and potential practical implications thereof.

The Unveiling of Synthetic Life

The second video is the consequent Journal Science video interview with J. Craig Venter about the first synthetic cell.

Notable Quotes by Craig Venter:

“This is the first self-replicating species that we have had on the planet whose parent is a computer.”

“Cells are software driven biological machines.”

Some initial reactions:

The Washington Post says of J. Craig Venter that “Either he is one of this era’s most electrifying scientists, or he’s one of the most maddening.”

Freeman Dyson: “I feel sure of only one conclusion. The ability to design and create new forms of life marks a turning-point in the history of our species and our planet.”

Ray Kurzweil: “This will essentially enable us to design new life forms at a computer screen.”

Eric Hoffman of Friends of the Earth: “We must ensure that strong regulations are in place to protect the environment and human health from this potentially dangerous new technology.”

Bioethicist Arthur Caplan of the University of Pennsylvania wrote a commentary in the journal Nature saying:

“Venter’s achievement would seem to extinguish the argument that life requires a special force or power to exist. In my view, this makes it one of the most important scientific achievements in the history of mankind.”[...]“Their achievement undermines a fundamental belief about the nature of life that is likely to prove as momentous to our view of ourselves and our place in the Universe as the discoveries of Galileo, Copernicus, Darwin and Einstein.”

Socrates: The creation of a synthetic cell is among the first steps on the road towards the creation of multi-cellular “dumb” artificial life. Eventually, that road will lead to the creation of “smart” artificial life organisms and, ultimately, the moment of singularity. What happens then will determine the fate of humanity and possibly that of the universe…

Relevant Documents from the J. Craig Venter Institute:

Press Release

Frequently Asked Questions

Fact Sheet

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  • James

    The hype is mighty but the conclusions of life are premature. A computer virus can reproduce itself and where would these little guys be without the brewers yeast used to create them in the first place? The question I ask is why are we so damned determined to recreate life when we haven't learned how to take care of the amazing and beautiful life forms of this planet first? Perhaps there is more money in it.

  • Socrates

    Well, James,
    Let me start backwards: Why recreate life?
    The goal is to not exactly “re-create” but really create a different kind of life. So, even though (for now) we can't do without the brewers' yeast as the starting product, the end result is something very different and, more importantly, exactly up to customer's specifications. As you know, I am not talking about beer here but anything you feel like — from pets glowing in the dark, biological weapons of mass destruction, vaccines for fast mutating viruses such as HIV or oil-spill munching algae. With the new technology all of those could potentially be programmed on a desktop computer and be “printed” within 24 hours.
    On a larger scale - Yes, there is more money in it. (E.g. Craig Venter's company has supposedly a trillion worth of a market cap) but also their approach is quite different in its epistemology than what you suggest. That is to say that as DNA engineers and geneticists (or programmers) those guys generally start from the point of view that to really know and understand something you must be able to (re)create it. From an engineering point of view if you can make something then you must, by definition, understand it extremely well, both in terms of its parts, but also in terms of those coming together and working as a single (machine) organism.

  • James

    Ho Socrates, well said and thank you for creating and maintaining the Singularity Weblog Symposium as a forum where these questions and issues can be publicly aired. What you say is true, as far as it goes, but the ethical issues hinge upon the concluding sentence:So usually what happens is that, while philosophers are busy debating the above, the restless engineering genius is busy building what may turn out to be either our immortality or our extinction… we seem to not only lack a useful language to discuss these issues but the opportunity to do so before these explosive new techniques tip our humanity out with the deconstructionist bathwater. Are we only just another “machine” with “processors” for a brains and a “pump” for a heart? The materialistic and mechanistic analogies ignore humanity's ancient artistic and poetic, storytelling - dreaming genius by casually dismissing legitimate concerns about making such preemptive leaps. Self selecting - wealth producing initiatives for a few that naturally insult and violate our social and aesthetic felt-experience and sense of dignity. These brave new bio-engineers cannot be let off with a free pass on their techniques and ambitions to just Do It just because they think they can. To do so would be a betrayal of the very essence of what makes living a privileged and sacred experience of mystery and possibility. Old fashioned notions? I think not. Because regardless of any of our opinions about the nature and purpose of life we have a long ways to travel before we can assume our intentions to act god-like to be a reasonable proposition. Look around - what do we see -but a world in crisis and perhaps terminal confusion. Commercial choices to do or not to do - drill or not to drill - have trounced any respect for the relatedness of all life on this little blue-green planet. This will be no small thing to move through and also find a healthy, balanced and productive future. We need to collectively examine the issues and create new modes of discussion and consensus or face very unknown and potentially dangerous consequences. So again, 'thank you for creating and maintaining the Singularity Weblog Symposium as a forum where these questions and issues can be publicly aired'.

  • Socrates

    You are most welcome James!

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