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Live From SXSW Interactive: J. Craig Venter On Writing The Genetic Code

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Have you had your genes sequenced lately?

How about synthetic biology? Create any synthetic widgets in your spare time?

J. Craig Venter, one of the first humans to crack, and have cracked, the human genetic code is at it again, and boy did he deliver this morning at SXSW.

His appearance alone was an interesting mashup, introducing the first biological scientist to speak at this digital festouche.

So what was Venter’s message?

Well, first, it was to answer some big questions: What is life? Can we digitize it? How extensive is it? Can we pare it down to its most basic components?

As Venter and company have started filling up their computer databases with more and more digitized biological information, they’re starting to answer those questions.

This presents the world with some unique opportunities, science that could help with everything from synthetic fuels to enhanced crop production to helping create vaccines using synthetic biology (a flu vaccine was created using this methodology in less than 24 hours, a process that typically takes months).

Yes, of course, there are far-reaching ethical and moral questions about such scientific investigations, which Venter readily admitted. And the Obama White House even issued a report on the ethics of synthetic biology just last year.

But perhaps conspicuously masked behind the opportunity was a reveal that Venter himself may not have been conscious of in his talk.

Science fiction writer Bruce Sterling approached the microphone during the Q&A to ask the follow question: “How do you see what you’re doing?,” a reference to the nanotechnological scale at which most synthetic biological science is occurring.

Venter’s response: “You can’t see what you’re doing at scale…you have to take it on faith.”

I think I almost heard Sterling snickering as he shuffled away from the microphone.

Written by turbotodd

March 14, 2011 at 3:32 pm

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