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A new life for new frontiers

Craig Venter’s artificial bacteria may solve some of the world’s most pressing issues.

india Updated: May 24, 2010 09:19 IST

Craig Venter has taken genetic modification to its logical extreme by synthesising an artificial lifeform. Strictly speaking, he has not created life. He has created an unnatural DNA nucleus and successfully had it take over a bacteria which now eats, breathes and reproduces at the behest of that DNA. The geneticist, already famous for mapping the human genome, dubbed it the first species on earth “whose parent is a computer.”

What has been accomplished is strictly not wholly original — bits and pieces of functional DNA have been synthesised before. But no one has done this on a scale sufficient to create a new species. Also, what has been done is more technology than pure science. Mr Venter took ten years and $40 million to produce his synthetic genome. Because of his trailblazing, the next such genome will now be produced at a fraction of the time and cost. Environmentalists and religious critics with rigid visions of creation have taken up cudgels against Mr Venter. But far from being a pretend deity, Mr Venter is being wholly human. For thousands of years mankind has sought to reshape nature to meet its needs. Wheat is a forced hybrid from wild grasses. Corn is a mutation of a weed. Potatoes are edible only because of a millennia of selective breeding. The same is true for every domesticated animal that exists. But where manipulation was once a painful business of hit-and-miss that could span centuries, genetic modification — and now genetic creation — allows such shape-shifting to be rapid and targeted. Mankind still needs to compel nature to do its bidding. If anything, it needs to tap the potential of the natural world more than ever. The gap between the world’s population and its food production has narrowed alarmingly in the past decade. Climate change threatens to put severe limits on global energy consumption. Mr Venter’s synthetic bacteria may prove to be a key part of the solution. His immediate goal is the construction of a micro-organism designed to be a biofuel factory.

No one knows if Mr Venter’s vision will succeed: some biotechnologists believe modifying existing lifeforms makes more sense than starting from scratch. But there is a good chance that emerging economies like India, that are particularly vulnerable to shortages of food and fuel, may one day be thankful for the vision of his breed of techno-entrepreneurs. In a few years, the real issue for emerging economies may be less the abstract bioethics of his breakthrough than how quickly they can master his techniques.