Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The Race

Craig Venter on the great race;
"We've been digitizing biology, and now we're trying to go from that code to designing biology. We've tried various approaches, paring it down to basic components, digitizing it, now we're trying to ask: can we regenerate life or create new life out of this digital universe? The pace of digitizing life has been increasing exponentially. Our ability to write genetic code has been growing more slowly. Turns out synthesizing DNA is difficult. In a biological system the software builds its own hardware, but design is critical, and if you start with digital information, it has to be really accurate. How do we boot-up a synthetic chromosome? We can do a transplant of a chromosome from one cell to another and activate it. We may be about to create a new version of the Cambrian explosion, where there is massive new speciation (the formation of new and distinct species) based on this digital design. We have now a database with about 20 million genes, and we like to think of them as the design component of the life of the future. We now have techniques to do combinatorial genomics, to build a robot that can make a million chromosomes a day.

We're now focusing on fourth-generation designer fuels. Curent biofuels aren't the solution. The only way that biology can have an impact on fuel without increasing the price of food, it's to start with CO2 as the feed stock -- create new energy out of CO2, and we think we will have something within the next 18 months. Future uses of this technology: increase the basic understanding of life; replace the petro-chemical industry; become a major source of energy; enhance bioremediation. We're changing the evolutionary tree with new bacteria and species."
I suspect that this memetically recursive path is the ONLY viable path out of the evolutionary bottleneck. Because of the choices made on large institutional and cultural scales, I begin to doubt whether or not this path will be explored hard enough and fast enough to make the difference that it could make. This is where the world should invest its space race fervor.