Sunday, May 23, 2010

not chemisty, but computer power


Video - positives and negatives of the breakthrough.

Guardian | Freeman Dyson, the physicist, captured the full range of academic sentiment in this dry appraisal: "This experiment is clumsy, tedious, unoriginal. From the point of view of aesthetic and intellectual elegance, it is a bad experiment. But it is nevertheless a big discovery… the ability to design and create new forms of life marks a turning point in the history of our species and our planet."

Venter's ego and his preference to turn to corporations rather than research foundations as funding partners (Exxon Mobil is a $600m sponsor of his energy experiments) do not tend to endear him to the academic establishment. Steve Jones, professor of genetics at University College London, and a perennial voice of reason, offered me this verdict on the biologist's latest headlines.

"It's very easy to mock Venter," Jones suggests. "When he first appeared, people just kind of sneered at him. But they stopped sneering when they saw his brilliance in realising that the genome was not a problem of chemistry but a problem of computer power. I don't think anybody can deny that that was a monumental achievement and he has been doing fantastically interesting things subsequently with marine life. Having said that, though, the man is clearly a bit of a prick and one with a serial addiction to publicity."

Jones is sceptical about the hyperbole of breathless headlines. "The idea that this is 'playing God' is just daft. What he has done in genetic terms would be analogous to taking an Apple Mac programme and making it work on a PC – and then saying you have created a computer. It's not trivial, but it is utterly absurd the claims that are being made about it."

Stewart Brand, the ecological visionary and creator of the Whole Earth Catalog, is more persuaded. Brand has got to know Venter over the last couple of years through John Brockman's Edge initiative which brings together the world's pioneering minds. What differentiates Venter from many of his peers, Brand believes, is that he is not only a brilliant biologist, but also a brilliant organisational activist. "A lot of people can think big but Craig also has the ability to fund big: he doesn't wait for grants, he just gets on and finds a way to do these things. His great contribution will be to impress on people that we live in this vast biotic of microbes. What he has shown is that microbial ecology is now where everything is at."

Brand once suggested that "we are as gods and we might as well get good at it". That statement has gained greater urgency with climate change, he suggests. "Craig is one of those who is rising to the occasion, showing us how good we can be."