Monday, February 04, 2008

Meet God. He's the guy in the white labcoat.

Just over a week ago, the American Association for the Advancement of Science published an article in Science magazine entitled "Complete Chemical Synthesis, Assembly, and Cloning of a Mycoplasma genitalium Genome". The article describes a new milestone in the goal to create life from its fundamental building blocks - Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA).

This "synthesis, assembly, and cloning" work was undertaken by a team at the J. Craig Venter Institute in the USA. Together they assembled 582,970 DNA letters into an artificial chromosome that they (apparently) are now attempting to implant into a bacterial cell to produce a new life form.

To ensure the artificial life form is uniquely identifiable, the team deliberately sequenced watermarks into the DNA sequence. David Wheeler and Tao Tao examined the code and found these watermarks, which rather predictably included references to the designers' names and corporate affiliation.

Given their past history with patents, I'm assuming that the team will guard their creativity, by legally protecting the life form they invented. A number of reports have indicated that the team's ultimate goal is to produce bacteria that will provide a new biofuel source, or that will consume CO2 from the atmosphere to address global warming, and such like. If so, they stand on the cusp of a significant new industry with the potential to create phenomenal wealth, political and social influence, on a scale that has never been seen before.

The question invariably arises about whether this research is something that should be legislated. However, science moves much quicker than legislators, and science has far broader boundaries than the legislators' jurisdiction. You only have to look at the legal challenges around cloning and embryology to see that laws passed just 12 years ago in the UK are inadequate to deal with the latest advancements in the science. It is futile to depend upon specific written laws to police the scientists, instead we rely upon moral influence, communication, and community reaction.

And therein lies the problem, and the opportunity. Nobody asked the industrialists in the industrial revolution to stop inventing and advancing the state of the art in their field of endeavor. Nobody can bring legislation to dictate how people will choose to use the power of their computers and the Internet. We rely upon the wisdom of the masses to move towards those technologies that improve the world for the majority of the population. I expect that there will be a widening gap between "those that have" and "those that have not". It is everyone's duty to ensure that such a gap is minimized, by sharing knowledge and power equitably.

In the end, the news of Mycoplasma genitalium was overshadowed by the uncovering of a 4.9 billion euro fraud at the same time in French bank Societe Generale. At least for the moment, the God people seem to still care about can be carried in your back pocket.

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