Flu vaccines in a matter of hours. Bioengineering facilities the size of San Francisco. Cells and DNA, upgraded like living software. This is the future microbiologist Dr. Craig Venter sees as inevitable, and it’s only a few years away.
Dr. Venter spoke with <em>60 Minutes and Steve Kroft this evening, and he contends that the first “upgrades” will probably arrive in the form of a genetically modified flu vaccine, possibly next year. However, unlike the months it takes pharmaceutical companies to produce the seasonal vaccines today, these adaptable super vaccines will be ready in as little as 24 hours (or less).
If the name Dr. Venter sounds familiar, it’s probably because you remember him from one of his past breakthroughs. The two major ones most people know are mapping the Human Genome and creating synthetic life.
On the top of synthetic life, the phrase “playing god” is often cited as a negative. Venter, an atheist, dismissed such criticism in this evening’s interview.
But is he playing God? Venter says he and his team are just understanding the rules of life. But he adds: “I believe the universe is far more wonderful than just assuming it was made by some higher power. I think the fact that these cells are software-driven machines and that software is DNA…that’s truly the secret of life…is pretty miraculous.”
That said, it is undeniable that there is incredible power at play here, and the dangers of this research are exactly what you’d expect when it comes to messing around with the building blocks of life. Dr. Venter, to his credit, did address those concerns in his interview tonight. The synthetic bacteria his team revealed earlier this year can only survive in the lab, for example, and he was all for regulation and safeguards during his hearing with Congress earlier this year.
But! You say that people are evil sometimes, and eventually this stuff will get out and we’ll have a Michael Crichton novel on our hands. All true. Venter agrees, but the same could have been said of domesticating wild life or corn, or the cross-pollination of certain plant species. None were done in a laboratory setting, he said, and as such did not have the science of control that his experiments do today.
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The question is no longer “is this possible?” It’s “who is already doing this and when we will start to see the fruits of their labour appear in the mainstream?” DuPont is already using a custom genetic compound in certain clothing and carpets. LS9 has modified E.coli bacteria so that they produce fuel. Dr. Venter’s contract with BP could eventually lead to fuel-producing algae that feed on CO2. Listening the Venter, the question “what is possible?” may no longer apply either. To him, once we have truly unlocked our biological software, anything will be possible.
We can regulate and monitor this science the best we can so it’s safe, or we can get out of the way. Venter isn’t the only one doing this, but he is certainly the most well-known and vocal. There are others. It is inevitable. [60 Minutes]