Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2010

J. Craig Venter

J. Craig Venter, one of the first geneticists to sequence the human genome, has been called many things — arrogant, antagonistic, even daring to play God. But no matter how polarizing he may be, few of his colleagues or critics would deny that he has made monumental advancements in the world of science. This year Venter and his team at the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI), a not-for-profit genomic-research organization, announced in the journal Science that they had created the very first synthetic life-form, by creating DNA using chemicals in a lab and inserting it into a living bacterium.

The feat itself is astounding — an age-old science-fiction plot come true — but perhaps just as astounding are the possibilities it suggests, such as tailor-made species that could produce mass amounts of food or biofuel. But worries remain about the possibility that a synthetic organism could mutate or adapt in unexpected and dangerous ways. Certainly Venter has sparked fundamental questions about both our scientific and philosophical ideas of what factors do (and should) constitute life.