J. Craig Venter wants to make what most consider science fiction into reality. Best known for his work in the race to map the human genome for The Human Genome Project, Venter has turned his attention to a field traditionally reserved for — depending on your perspective — God and Darwin. According to Roger Highfield, writing for The Daily Telegraph in a piece published on Edge, Venter wants to create artificial life.
As a step along the way, Venter, one of two scientists given the most credit for mapping the human genome, will lay bare the first complete genetic code of an individual human being. While the Human Genome Project was a kind of a composite sketch taken from multiple subjects, in Venter’s new project, the entire genetic code will be that of one person: J. Craig Venter. Highfield calls the endeavor ‘the ultimate in autobiography.’ Venter points to the scientific benefits: Knowing a person’s medical history and applying that information to the person’s genetic code could help scientists better understand the connection between genetics and diseases. Many are already celebrating Venter’s achievement, while detractors call the project ‘a monumental display of egotism.’
With his study of his personal DNA ready for publication in a few months, Venter has moved on ‘from reading DNA to writing it.’ According to Highfield, Venter wants to reorganize the genetic code of a microbe found in human genitalia to create his own designer microbes. The newly manufactured artificial organisms could be engineered to help in the fight against greenhouse gasses, or to further the cause of renewable energy by harvesting solar power. ‘We will throw the soup together,’ said Venter, ‘give it a lightning bolt’ and conceivably create life.
To examine the ethical implications of the project, Highfield reports that Venter has consulted a team of ethical and religious experts, and the project is bowling ahead for now. When asked if he thought the project was ‘playing God,’ Venter’s colleague Hamilton Smith gave a joking but revealing response: ‘We don’t play.’ — Bennett Gordon
Go there >>
Go there too >>
The Six Billion Letter Man Makes DNA Breakthrough
Related Links from the Utne Archive:
Comments? Story tips?Write a letter to the editor
Like this? Want more?Subscribe to Utne magazine