Understanding what the Venter Institute really did today
The short answer is that they created a wholly synthetic genome and put it in a yeast cell. This goes towards creating a minimal cell; figuring out how little DNA you need to make a barebones organism. This leaves lots of extra possible genetic space to making that minimal cell do stuff we want, whether it be pee out biofuels or Prozac, eat Gulf of Mexico oil, or glow in the presence of melamine, cancer, or anger. With a minimal and reusable platform, doing any of these things just becomes a coding problem. And not even a novel coding problem, because we already have Nature to reverse engineer from. Nature uses the same platform, and at some point or another has already solved all these problems.
It’s techno-exciting, but fundamentally, it’s the next level of fine-grained resolution on the control of our environment, which has been our species’ trick from the beginning. Venter and his cohort are trying to replace petroleum, (and control the replacement, and pretty much rule the world as a result) and others are trying to create complex cancer fighting biologics. Some sweet, wonderful people from the nicer parts of biomed are even trying to figure out how to make a cheap suite of biologic drugs to treat the horrible helminthic NTDs (Neglected Tropical Diseases) that are destroying the lives of about 1.5 billion of the world’s poor. This task will be made vastly simpler with a platform like the minimal cell, at least in theory.
But there’s a paradox built into our tendency to seek more environmental control. The more control we have, the more unpredictable our world becomes. This is because all the other humans with their unpredictable and hidden desires can now also control our environment.
While biopunditry is talking about biofuel, cancer treatment, and growing extinct mammoths, I wanted to bring the implications of this work out of the towers of ivory and industry and down to earth.
Today, we lost the drug war. Oh, it will run around for a while, unaware that it is dead, but we have decisively lost.
You know what’s a lot easier than all the high minded business about environment, or life extension, or even the scary doomsday 12 Monkeys scenarios? Growing simpler molecule drugs. I don’t mean like aspirin, I mean like heroin and cocaine, THC and hallucinogens. They already grow in plants thoroughly studied, and people are motivated and not at all risk averse about getting those sequences somewhere they can use them. Cooking meth is hard and dangerous science compared to the ability to get a starter of a minimal cell that poops heroin and feeding it growth medium in your closet. We may have lost the drug war, but not as badly as the drug lords have.
It’s still hard to grow drugs in medium. But the whole point of this project is to make it easier. Who will be motivated to put in the work to make it happen? Especially if it’s so bad for organized crime? Drug addicts, frankly. You think they look like street junkies with DTs, but a fair number look like scientists, because they are. Drugs will finally be p2p, and governments and drug lords alike will find out what it’s like to be media companies and counterfeiters in a world of lossless copying and 100Mb pipes. Junkies will be victims of their success, and if we don’t get serious about treating addiction instead of trying to fight chemicals, it’s going to look a lot more bloody and horrid than the RIAA’s lawsuit factory. This is just one vision of what this kind of disruption looks like when people get a hold of it.
What synthbio is inventing right now is the true Bittorrent for things. It’s a platform for generating and sharing materials just this side of geology, since nearly everything but rocks is made by life. Right now you can think of it has having an interface so bad only a few people in the world can actually use it, and our hope for being in control is that the interface stays bad as long as possible. In the history of technology, that has rarely worked in the long term.
Craig Venter is not, despite his press, the smartest guy on the planet. He is not savant like, leaps and bounds in front of everyone and everything else. He isn’t the only one working on this. He’s maybe slightly in front, but probably not. If he is, it’s by inches. This is perhaps his Trinity, or the proof of concept right before it. It’s momentous, but it won’t stay contained.
This is on the scale of nukes, but not for long. Nukes are hard to build, requiring mind-boggling equipment and leave a kind of scent where ever they go. They can only really be used for magawatt power generation, and blowing shit up. Bio can be used for nearly anything you, me, or Charlie Stross can dream up. Imagine trying to stop proliferation if the atomic material centrifuges literally grew on trees and the fissile material floated freely through the air, and tended to show up in great amounts on bread you left out too long.
When you think of this, you can think of seeing a dodo someday, or Jurassic Park, or even taking a drug that a doctor grew just for you. But keep in mind the strangeness of the human imagination and the strength of human desires. A thousand weird Somas are coming, too.