Sunday, May 23, 2010

Life! Cue thunder, mad scientist laughter

Like I said last week, I love all that old-timey science fiction, and it's amazing to consider the advances of my lifetime. When my boyfriend holds up his phone, gives it a verbal command, and receives, in a few seconds, whatever information he needed, I really get the sensation of living in the future. On the other hand, I wish he'd put the damn thing down when he's driving.

Anyway, this week's huge science news involves the always exceptional J Craig Venter Institute, where scientists have successfully created artificial DNA, injected it into a cell, and watched that cell replicate. Artificial life! (In a sense.)

This announcement was immediately followed by a call to ban any such research.

Look, it's too late to put the genie back in the bottle. Might be one thing if we had a pristine environment, if we weren't already past the point of no return in climate change. Perhaps then I could see the point of worrying. But now...this technology could eventually create organisms that ate oil floating on the ocean, or that excreted a perfect fuel source, or fixed nitrogen in the soil, or, I don't know, cured cancer. Point is, we are so far past the point of saying, "we can't mess with nature." Nature is already messed. All we can do now is maybe forge through to the point of patching it back up.

I have long believed that our genetic code is, to those who can read it, a sort of novel about life. In the past 50 years, we have begun to learn the ABCs of DNA. And now we're at the point that we can spell C-A-T and M-O-M. Have you ever watched a kid learning to read? It's amazing. And so is this.

Of course, useful results are a long way off. But you don't stop your kindergartener from learning to read because someday he might write an unflattering tell-all exposé about your lousy child-rearing. You encourage the kid to keep going, and hope that what they write turns out to be Pulitzer material.

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