Tag Archives: Genomics

How to build a person

Tim Minchin narrates a nice introduction to the history — and future — of genomics:

More on ENCODE — the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements — here:

Gina Kolata of the New York Times walks us through the most recent breakthrough in DNA research and its implications. It’s worth reading through, but here’s a bit some may miss:

The findings, which are the fruit of an immense federal project involving 440 scientists from 32 laboratories around the world, will have immediate applications for understanding how alterations in the non-gene parts of DNA contribute to human diseases, which may in turn lead to new drugs.

Indeed — ENCODE operates under the auspices of the US National Human Genome Research Institute, which is a division of the National Institutes of Health. That’s your tax dollars at work, America! As researchers continue to decode the human genome and gain significant ground in the fight against diseases like diabetes and cancer, it’s yet another clear example of why government matters.

(h/t Boing Boing)

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“The Poetry of Science”: Richard Dawkins and Neil deGrasse Tyson talk about everything

Got an hour and a half? Here are evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, talking about — well, quite literally, life, the universe, and everything. I highly recommend the whole thing, but if you’ve only got a half-hour, the Q&A period (starting at around 50:25) has some thought-provoking discussions about the role of philosophy in science; the imperviousness of certain rigidly religious minds to evidence; the decline of America’s prominence in science; the notion of people as extremophiles; Tyson’s views on mortality; and the best manuscript typo ever.

Settle in. Enjoy.

(via RichardDawkins.net)

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Playing God?

Looks like Andrew Revkin has written about some of the same points I’ve made about the intersection of science and ethics, in the wake of J. Craig Venter’s feat:

The latest achievement of J. Craig Venter — rebooting a bacterial cell as a different species by giving it a man-made genetic instruction manual — is just one step on the long inevitable path into synthetic biology.

Humans have modified organisms for ages, making the dog species as variegated as Chihuahuas and mastiffs, transforming corn from a slender grass into a stalk studded with cobs of nutritious grain. But now we’re writing the software from scratch (Venter even included a “watermark” in the million-letter code inserted into the re-purposed bacterium).

Bacteria long ago were engineered to churn out insulin. Now science is poised to tell a bacterium what it is. Listening to talk radio this morning, I heard Glenn Beck railing about the research as it if had been some classified project that was suddenly revealed.

And so, right on schedule, here come the voices railing against the mad scientists who dare to play God. Interestingly, Revkin cites Arthur Caplan of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Bioethics, who argues that the perception that ethics always lags behind science is false. I’ll try to find a video of Caplan’s presentation, but for now his Powerpoint document (warning: pdf) outlines his argument: that the complaints surrounding scientific advances more often than not revolve around policy and politics, not ethics (as when we talk about the malicious misuse of technology, or the impact of technology on health and the environment). When the complaints are about ethics, they usually center on two points: that life cannot be reduced to genetics, and that we’re playing God. Caplan’s document outlines a debunking of these claims, and I wish I could have heard him flesh his argument out.

In any case, he points out that explorations of the ethical implications of new technologies are often carried out before these new technologies are perfected or implemented. It’s the media that needs to do a better job of bringing the public up to speed on ethical arguments that scientists have already been wrestling with in the course of their work.

Caplan further explores the “playing God” accusation and the ethics of synthetic life here and here. A point that resonates with me:

Scientists, theologians and philosophers have been wrangling over this issue for eons. For many, the wondrous nature of what permits something to be alive has been a mystery that science never, ever could penetrate. Life is sacred, special, ineffable and beyond human understanding. Except it isn’t. […]

The deeper question: is the dignity of life imperiled by showing that human beings can create a novel living thing? I think not. There are those who are enthralled by the idea that life is a riddle beyond solution. However, the value of life is not imperiled or cheapened by coming to understand how it works.

As I’ve argued before, in debates about whether or not morality has biological roots, and whether or not discovering such roots would be a good thing: To understand something completely is not to devalue it. To grasp the biological origins of love, kindness, honor, courage, and altruism is not to feel those things any less deeply or powerfully. To know the universe is to wonder at it even more.

Knowledge — coupled with wisdom — is a good thing. Ignorance never is.

(Image via Syntheticlifeforms.org)

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The thrill of the new, the fear of the new

It seems that we’re getting better at manipulating life, and perhaps eventually at creating new forms of it. From the NY Times:

The genome pioneer J. Craig Venter has taken another step in his quest to create synthetic life, by synthesizing an entire bacterial genome and using it to take over a cell.

Dr. Venter calls the result a “synthetic cell” and is presenting the research as a landmark achievement that will open the way to creating useful microbes from scratch to make products like vaccines and biofuels. At a press conference Thursday, Dr. Venter described the converted cell as “the first self-replicating species we’ve had on the planet whose parent is a computer.”

“This is a philosophical advance as much as a technical advance,” he said, suggesting that the “synthetic cell” raised new questions about the nature of life.

Essentially, as I understand it, Venter’s team invented an artificial genome via a computer program, assembled it with chemical components, and injected it into living bacterial cells — at which point the artificial genome overrode the cells’ original DNA and the bacteria became, in effect, organisms doing the bidding of human-made instructions.

Wow.

There is, quite understandably, a lot of excitement about this. As Andrew Revkin writes, one of Venter’s goals has been “to program organisms that, at large scale, could harvest carbon dioxide and generate hydrocarbons, replacing oil as a fuel and feedstock.” And there’s no limit to what we can wildly imagine human-designed microorganisms (and eventually larger life-forms?) accomplishing: Nanomachines in the blood, perhaps, to repair cell damage, arrest the aging process, and enhance human abilities, like the technology that sustains the immortal cyborgs in Kage Baker’s Company novels. Or microbes sweeping through the atmosphere, sucking up excess greenhouse gases. (I’m reminded of the monoliths in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010 — are they synthetic? are they alive? — multiplying on the surface of Jupiter and converting its gases into heavier elements, triggering its transformation into a second sun. Could such feats of engineering be in the distant human future?)

Also understandably, there are objections and concerns — some, unsurprisingly, from within the scientific community itself, because criticism and dissent are just part of how science rolls. Freeman Dyson offers a backhanded compliment: Continue reading

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