Open Source Life

October 11th, 2010 by

Bride Of Frankenstein by Kaptain Kobold @ FlickrAs far as scientific breakthroughs go, they don’t get much bigger. Like the splitting of the atom and the invention of two minute noodles, it elevates man into a realm once considered the preserve of the gods.

What I am referring to, of course, is the creation of artificial life by biologist Craig Venter.

The Bride of Frankenstein
Without getting into too much detail, what Dr Venter has in essence done is manufacture a synthetic chromosome and insert it into a bacterial cell, which had its own chromosome removed. The breakthrough was that the bacteria then replicated normally with this set of artificially created genetic instructions.

While The Economist front page declared And man made life, not everyone has been so enthusiastic. Matching the glowing headlines has been an equal amount of skepticism. Steve Jones, professor of genetics at University College London saidwhat he has done in genetic terms would be analogous to taking an Apple Mac program and making it work on a PC – and then saying you have created a computer.”

Whatever your view, there appears to be a level of consensus that the breakthrough is, at the very least, significant. Venter’s brilliance, according to Prof Jones, is “realizing that the genome was not a problem of chemistry but a problem of computer power.” With such computer power – Venter is thought to be the largest private user of it in the world – he has demonstrated a way to harness biology for industrial purposes.

Much like the splitting of the atom, the advance seems to have as much potential for harm as it has for good. While the possible benefits, such as manufacturing bacteria that consume carbon dioxide and excrete fuel (Venter has a deal with ExxonMobil to create just such bacteria), are enormous, so too are the dangers.

Just as hackers today churn out malicious software viruses, one day it seems people will be able to use a laptop, synthetic biology and some spare time during ad breaks to manufacture real viruses. While most hackers, even now that Lost has finished, would consider such a suggestion abhorrent, rogue states like North Korea and terrorist organizations such as Al Qaida obviously would not. After all, they may not have access to TV at all.

Safety in numbers
Rather than try to suppress this field of research (which would probably not be possible anyway), some suggest that a better way to protect society from it is to instead open the know-how up to as many people as possible. The idea is that this will give the good guys of the computing and genetics world a chance to quickly neutralize any malicious threats.

Of course, creating an antidote to a real life virus is rather more complicated and fraught with danger than dealing with the latest malware. For a start, as anyone who clicked on the link to extra detail above will know (I prefer Charlie Brooker’s analysis), this is not something a geeky school kid is going to be able to help out with from mom and dad’s garage. And of course, if efforts to find an antidote fail, we can’t simply flick the reset button (or depending on the situation throw the computer out of a six storey window, only feeling better when we hear the sound of it smashing on the street below).

But that is not to say that the idea does not have merit. Numerous crowdsourcing platforms already draw together people from around the world to complete everything from microtasks to complex problems. With enormous communities of highly educated, well resourced good guys like those working on earlier post, perhaps it is not such an idealistic idea.

Working in conjunction with teams of private and public scientists and organizations, the ideas, labor and enthusiasm of thousands of volunteers (and their computing power) could be exactly what is needed to defend the world from such a threat. At the very least, they should be able to come up with a new flavor of animal for my two minute noodles. Either way, I’ll be happy.


  • hm

    Two links to make this a little more concrete:

    http://www.sagebase.org
    http://research.microsoft.com/en-us/projects/dna

    HM

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  • http://www.facebook.com/LewisClarkServiceCorps Casey Armstrong

    I also think supervision will play a large role. It will be more difficult to do anything secretly in the future, cameras, sensors, and intelligent software could quickly get us to the pointof minority report. That opens up a whole other bucket of micro-worms…


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