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John Wayne's Holster: J. Craig Ventner – A Modern Dr. Frankenstein?
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Friday, May 05, 2006

J. Craig Ventner – A Modern Dr. Frankenstein?

J. Craig Venter made himself a household name by completely decoding the human genome. The magnitude of Ventner’s accomplishment can not be overstated.

Now he and his colleagues are striving to create the first synthetic life form. To do so, he will have to synthesize a complete set of genes for this organism – totally from scratch! As Ventner states, “ We're moving from reading the genetic code to writing it.

If Ventner is able to accomplish this feat, he will have succeeded in creating never-before-seen living things. This technology has the potential for great advancements in our understanding of how living cells function. In addition, it could lead to the creation of synthetic cells that can carry out useful industrial application such as chemical production, detoxification of pollutants and the production of fuels and medicines. Not surprisingly, this project has attracted big money.

While the potential benefits are encouraging, one must not forget that there are also serious risks that need to be considered. For example, what would happen if one of the novel synthetic life forms is accidentally released into nature? What would the ecological consequences be? The consequences to humans? How would it be controlled?

There is also the issue of security. The price for implementing these technologies is rapidly becoming cheaper and will be accessible to more people. There is the potential that rogue scientists or bioterrorists could use if for sinister ends. For example, they could create novel biological life forms that could be use as bioweapons - such as deadly viruses.

Last week, I attended a lecture given by Dr. Venter at Penn State University. Following the lecture, I spoke personally with him at the reception that followed his talk. I asked him about this potential for bioterrorism. To my shock, he blew me off. He told me that only three people have been killed so far by bioterrorism and much of the public's fear was being manufactured by President Bush as a tool to advance his own agenda.

Sure, Dr. Venter is correct in saying that only three people have been killed so far, but that in not a valid reason to brush off a potential pandemic that a bioterror attack could release. It is not science fiction to imagine it could happen. In 2002, Dr. Eckard Wimmer (State University of New York at Stony Brook) constructed a polio virus by mail ordering small DNA fragments over the internet and assembling them in the laboratory to create the virus. What is to stop a potential terrorist from doing something similar? For example, scientists were recently able to regenerate the 1918 Spanish influenza virus that killed 50 million people. The complete sequence of the virus is publicly available and - in the wrong hands - could be synthesized by bioterrorists.

In an effort to alleviate public concern, the Ventner Institute, along with the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), recently initiated a project to “explore the risks and benefits of this emerging technology, as well as possible safeguards to prevent abuse, including bioterrorism”. While I find the goal of the study to be commendable, I must admit it is problematic to have groups with vested interests to self-police their own research.

The bottom line is this! Synthetic biology has the great potential to impact our lives in ways we only imagined a decade ago. It could lead to major advances in medicine, energy, environment and industry. But there are also risks! Do we really know the scope of the uncertainties associated with these risks? Do we have realistic strategies to deal with accidents that may occur? And how do we keep the technology out of the hands of those who mean to do us harm?

If we do not have satifactory answers to these questions, then the risks outweigh any potential benefit that could be generated and therefore should not be taken. I am not convinced that these questions have adequately been answered. And the people in charge of looking for the answers are vested in the implementation of the technology itself, and should not be trusted.

Perhaps Dr. Ventner should curb his ego and exercise a little caution, lest he become the modern version of Victor Frankenstein.


At 11:13 AM, Anonymous Roy said...

Great Post! While genetic science is a little out of my area of expertise, I am fascinated by the accomplishments and possiblities.

Could this lead to the recreation of diosaurs? Or is he talking about creating entirely new species?

This Venter guy sounds like an ass. I must say that I am not surprised. It is scary to think of all the bad things that can happen. I just don't see how we can put the cat back in the bag. Perehaps if I was on the brink of greatness I would overlook the problems as well. We can only hope if there ever is a bio-terror attack, that it gets his ass first.


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