Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Real Dr. Frankenstein: Artificial Life Is Here

As of today, artificial life is real. Craig Venter, one of the founding fathers of genomics, has successfully created a new life form built from scratch from a synthetic, engineered genome.

According to Earth2Tech, "The researchers built a synthetic chromosome and inserted it into a living bacterial cell, where it — for the first time and published in the journal Science today — took over the cell and became a new life form."

So the world's first man-made life form is also a body-snatcher.

Venter's research is being funded largely on the hopes that it will produce new organisms to help convert sugars into ethanol, or to engineer a new algae that not only absorbs CO2, but also could be used as a transportation fuel. In fact, Venter's startup, Synthetic Genomics, Inc., has been operating in partnership with ExxonMobil's research and development office.

There's a strain of environmentalism that believes that climate change is catastrophic and unavoidable, and the best option for us now is not to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but to embark on large-scale "geo-engineering" projects to reverse-engineer the Earth's atmosphere into a cooler state. Ideas range from pumping smoke into the upper atmosphere to give us more shade, to seeding the oceans with iron to promote plankton growth.

These ideas horrify mainstream environmentalists because there's nothing to indicate that these ideas would work, or that they wouldn't inflict serious unforeseen consequences. To me, the worst thing about the geo-engineers is that they think it's a good idea to spend a lot of money and exert massive efforts in order to treat the symptoms of climate change - not the causes.

It seems to me that Dr. Venter's devotion to synthetic life has too much in common with the geo-engineers' perspective, even though his work is on a microscopic (instead of planetary) scale.

It's a huge effort, a science-fiction fantasy come to life, and for what? So we can fuel our minivans with the world's agricultural crops instead of with oil. Thanks, science - I guess.

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