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I Had No Idea
January 31, 2008 - 12:54pm


This week’s Economist brings news that Dr. Craig Venter has made the penultimate step toward “what people are hoping to see: the world’s first artificial organism.” He and his team have “replicated the genome of Mycoplasma genitalium,” which “lives in the urinary tract and is thought to cause urethritis.” (They “edited” one of its genes, so it can’t “stick to mammalian cells, [and] thus forestalled the risk of creating anything nasty.”)

Dr. Venter, they report, “wants to understand how life works” by finding the basics necessary for an organism to survive and reproduce, which might tell us more about “the last universal common ancestor of life on Earth.” But Venter “is also a practical man,” they point out, and through his business Synthetic Genomics hopes to “create a parts list of biological components…that could be ordered from catalogues in the way that electronic components can be.”

If he manages this, they write, “he will not only have made a great technological leap forward, but he will also have erased one of the last mythic distinctions in science—that between living and nonliving matter.” Indeed.

I don’t want to ask at the moment if ethics courses are mandatory in science curricula at your universities, and I’m not prepared to discuss my own belief that just because one can do something doesn’t mean one should do it.

I’m wondering instead if our friends in the scientific community can tell me if my lay-inkling is correct, that never in history has there been a greater gap between the capabilities of science to create new technologies and the public’s understanding of that science.

That is, we still fought our wars largely on horseback about the time Einstein wrote the introduction to his Special Theory of Relativity. But many of the improvements we made in killing each other at the turn of that last century were mechanical in nature, variations and improvements on older technologies, such as the armored tank, the machine gun, and barbed wire. It took until the Second War to get radar, the aqua-lung, and nylon stockings. Then, of course, came The Bomb, a quantum leap.

My inkling is that there’s stuff happening in labs and cubbies that the general public not only can’t imagine coming, and soon, but which they couldn’t begin to understand due to the level of science involved.


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