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Archive for May, 2010

I am late with my echo statement on this.

Over the past few days, the internet is abuzz with news of Craig Venter and his team for creating the first fully functional cell, controlled by synthetic DNA and discussions on what might be the ethical consequences of future work in this area.

The fact that this has happened is not surprising at all. Dr Venter has been very open about his work and has been promoting it for some years now.  For instance, a couple of years ago there was a wonderful TED talk in which Venter talks about his team being close to creating synthetic life. The latest news is ofcourse not of synthetic life, but a step closer to that grand aim.

Another Instance : Two years there was a brainstorming session whose transcript was converted by EDGE into a book available for free download too.

Dimitar Sasselov, Max Brockman, Seth Lloyd, George Church, J. Craig Venter, Freeman Dyson, Image Courtesy - EDGE

The BOOK can be downloaded from here.

So from such updates, it did not surprise me much when Venter made the announcement.

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Ethics : There have been frenzied debates on what this might lead us to on the internet, on television and elsewhere. These discussions on ethics appear to me to be inevitable and I find it most appropriate to quote the legendary Freeman Dyson on it.

“Two Hundred years ago, William Blake engraved The Gates of Paradise, a little book of drawings and verses. One of the drawings, with the title “Aged Ignorance”, shows an old man wearing professional eyeglasses and holding a large pair of scissors. In front of him, a winged child running naked in the light from a rising sun. The old man sits with his back to the sun. With a self satisfied smile he opens his scissors and chips the child’s wings. With the picture goes a little poem :

“In Time’s Ocean falled drown’d,
In aged ignorance profound,
Holy and cold, I clip’d the Wings
Of all Sublunary Things.”

This picture is an image of the human condition in the era that is now beginning. The rising sun is biological science, throwing light of every increasing intensity onto the processes by which we live and feel and think. The winged child is human life, becoming for the first time aware of itself and its potentialities in the light of science. The old man is our existing human society, shaped by ages of past ignorance. Our laws, our loyalities, our fears and hatreds, our economic and social injustices, all grew slowly and are deeply rooted in the past. Inevitably the advance of biological knowledge will bring clashes between the old institutions and new desires for human improvement. Old institutions will clip the wings of human desire. Up to a point, caution is justified and social constraints are necessary. The new technologies will be dangerous as well as liberating. But in the long run, social constraints must bend to new realities. Humanity can not live forever with clipped wings. The vision of self-improvement which William Blake and Samuel Gompers in their different ways proclaimed, will not vanish from the Earth.”

(The above is an excerpt from a lecture given by Freeman Dyson at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1995. The lecture was pulished by the New York Review of Books in 1997 and later as a chapter in Scientist as Rebel. )

Artificial Life Beyond the Wet Medium :

Life is a process which can be abstracted away from any particular mediumJohn Von Neumann

Wet Artificial-Life is what is basically synthetic life (in synthetic life you don’t really abstract the life process into another medium, but you digitize it and recreate it instead as per your requirement).

I do believe abstracting and digitizing life from a “wet chemical medium” to a computer is not very far off either i.e. a software that not only would imitate “life” but also synthesize it. And coupled with something like Koza’s Genetic Programming scheme embedded in it, develop something that possesses some intelligence other than producing more useful programs.

Coded Messages :

This is the fun part from the news about Venter and his team’s groundbreaking work. The synthetic DNA of the bacteria has a few messages coded into it.

1. “To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to create life out of life.” – from James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

James Joyce is one of my favourite writers*, so I was glad that this was encoded too. But I find it funny that what this quote says can also be the undoing of synthetic life or rather a difficult problem to solve. The biggest enemy of synthetic life is evolution (creating life out of life :), evolution would ensure that control of the synthetic bacteria is lost soon enough. I believe that countering this would be the single biggest challenge in synthetic biology.

*When I tried reading Ulysses, I kept giving up. But had this compulsive need to finish it anyway. I had to join an Orkut community called “Who is afraid of James Joyce” and after some motivation could read it! ;-)

2. What I can not build, I can not understand – Richard P. Feynman

This is what Dr Venter announced, isn’t “What I can not create, I do not understand” the correct version?

Feynman's Blackboard at the time of his death: Copyright - Caltech

3. “See things not as they are, but as they might be” – J. Robert Oppenheimer from American Prometheus

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Recommendations :

1. What is Life – Erwin Schrodinger (PDF)

2. Life – What A Concept! – EDGE (PDF)

3. A Life Decoded : My Genome, My Life – C. J. Venter (Google Books)

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