The most important fact about Venter’s achievement

If not the most important fact about what Craig Venter did is not that it raises ethical questions or anything like that (the questions are overblown anyway). Instead, it’s that what he did was a massive technical feat. It’s long, long, long been known that what he did was possible in theory. Everyone expected it to work. The problem was in making it work. That side of the problem came with different expectations. Almost certainly someday, yes, we ought to be able to synthesize a genome and insert it into a cell, but today? Could Venter’s team do it successfully using such a length of base pairs? The answer is yes, but that wasn’t always clear.

While I’m at it I suppose I can point out two more huge facts: first, the organism has no parents. It was not conceived sexually or replicated asexually. It is a product of pure chemistry, and that tells us something about the cell. Second, this achievement means we can go into a computer, change a few amino acids, and come up with completely different gene products. The first application may well be for industrial use (wouldn’t it be great to produce bacteria that just love to eat up oil spills?). I suspect another major application will somehow involve cancer treatment. The creation of an enzyme which makes it more difficult for cancer to recruit blood vessels (angiogenesis) or which reduces some other product cancer brings about for its own perpetuation may be the next big revolution in the so-called “War on Cancer”.

One Response

  1. Another very promising near term possibility are vaccines. They can change something like the flu vaccine output in a couple of days to match what is needed for the current year’s flu – much faster than it can be done now (which takes months).

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