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Published: 6/3/2007

Job descriptions for gods

Here's a fascinating piece on SynBio, short synthetic biology, from Newsweek. It talks about scientists building life from scratch.

They've forged chemicals into synthetic DNA, the DNA into

genes, genes into genomes, and built the molecular machinery

of completely new organisms in the lab organisms that are

nothing like anything nature has produced.

This is K. Eric Drexler's dream of nanomachines come to life literally. No need to take on the laws of physics to make eensy-weensy construction cranes or whatever. Let proteins do the heavy lifting. Biology becomes technology.

Harvard professor George Church wants 'to do for biology what

Intel does for electronics' namely, making biological parts that

can be assembled into organisms, which in turn can perform any imaginable biological activity.

Who knows what such entities could accomplish? Craig Venter, the man who sequenced the human genome in a fraction of the time and at a fraction of the cost anyone thought possible, is in the SynBio game. He predicts these biological machines could replace the petrochemical industry, most food, clean energy, and bioremediation.

So far, we're a long way from any of this. One scientist made a virus, and it invades bacteria just like other bacterial viruses do. Of course, viruses aren't really alive, since they can't do their thing without a host -- but this is an example of working with DNA fashioned from scratch.

After describing SynBio and its practitioners for awhile, the Newsweek piece goes on to pose the question: Is this right? Is it right to make life? To play god? To take the reins of nature in our .....

Oh, jeez, I must interrupt the debate right here and demand a better question.

The better question is: If you can do this, if you make life in the laboratory and that doesn't seem at all far fetched to me how do you test it? How do you make sure you understand how it will behave? At what point in the creation process do you need to understand that? And if it behaves well in the lab, how will it behave, say, in a shipping crate in a warehouse? Or in the backyard? Or wherever?

Look around you. House sparrows and starlings. Nobody predicted that bringing them to the United States from Europe would result in those birds becoming dominant all over Toledo, all over dozens of urban communities. Or let's go south and look at the kudzu vines draping every tree, abandoned house, and slow-moving pedestrian south of the Mason-Dixon. Someone thought this Japanese vine would make a great plant for erosion control.

Any action taken in the environment can set forth cascading, unanticipated events. Is there a way to predict those events? So far, with far blunter instruments than man-made bacteria with Asian lady bugs and Pacific salmon planted in the Great Lakes, and acres of manicured suburban turf grass -- we've been clueless. Life is full of sloppy unpredictability, and recognizing and accounting for that is far more interesting than questions of playing god. The god question, that's a question for Luddites, the question Prometheus and his ever-consumed liver has asked since Western civilization got its start: How dare we steal fire? How dare we do what we can do?

But we always have. We always will. The period marked most sharply by failing to do what we could do? We called that the Dark Ages. Any takers for a repeat?

I have no patience for dystopian scenarios think Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake or other plots in which mad scientists run out of control.

The way to view new developments is not by invoking Frankenstein myths, but by seriously confronting risk with ways to control those risks. We don't need to worry someone can take God's job. We need to worry that we could forget to do ours, that of taking care of this world.

And, yes, when you think about it that way, every technology gets scary, because we've done a pretty poor job with our part of the bargain thus far. But if even one of these BioSyn predictions could come true ─ if Craig Venter's vision of fuels without global warming could be reality ─ do we stop now over quibbles of job description? Or do we instead resolve or demand that we do the job we already possess as well as humanly possible, and better than we've done thus far?

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