GENETICS REVOLUTION

[ Tue. Jan. 22. 2008 ]

GENETICS REVOLUTION

Craig Venter wants to email life (Craig Venter will Lebewesen e-mailen)
By Christian Stöcker

A pioneer in the field of genetics can envision a fantastic future in which genetic codes are sent by email and then reassembled as living beings at the other end.  Or so Craig Venter forecast at an Internet conference in Munich.  He also hopes to solve the problem of global warming—with designer microbes. ...

CRAIG VENTER: LIFE VIA EMAILStart Slide Show: Click on photo (6 photos)

It is a dense network.  At the annual gathering of the digital elite, organized by Burda Media in Munich, cell phone networks have barely enough capacity.  WLAN and UMTS are groaning under their full load, as everyone calls, surfs the Internet, types—everywhere you look people have their Smartphones and their laptops, and the crowds of Blackberry devotees now also have an iPhone handy. 

The event is called DLD. Previously this stood for the "Digital Lifestyle Day," but it is now "Digital Life, Design."  The attendees are first-rate—in part because the event is so opportune: many of the international business stars to whom the publisher pays tribute in Munich will subsequently travel on to Davos for the World Economic Forum. And so this year we are running into people like Richard Dawkins and Marissa Mayer of Google in the hallways.  And Jason Calacanis, who invented the concept of blogging, chatted with Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales—oh yeah, and even Naomi Campbell will make an appearance today.

Bio-revolutionaries amidst technology fans 

The excitement is palpable, latching on to topics like the new markets in India and China, social networks, and above all the mobile network.  Although it possible that this last issue seems especially urgent because everyone is constantly trying to get on the Internet, and failing. 

Amidst all the enthusiasm for technology, one conversation had more explosive potential than the talking points of all the old and new digital entrepreneurs put together.  Only hardly anybody noticed.  DLD is always so crowded that you have to stand for the interesting events. But when genetics entrepreneur Craig Venter and genetics revolutionary Richard Dawkins, who took on the entire religious Right with his antireligious tomeThe Selfish Gene, got up on stage yesterday to talk about a "gene-centric world view," noticeably fewer people were standing than is often the case. And this even though their talk contained more revolutionary statements and wild forecasts by far than the other presentations looking toward future.

Venter, who last made headlines when he published his personal genome in full on the Internet, made brazen claims, but nobody reacted. Venter insisted that climate change represents a much greater risk to humanity than genetic engineering, which could actually help fight it.  For example, with genetically manipulated microbes capable of absorbing CO2: "We can change the environment through genetic engineering."  John Brockman, who is the literary agent of both Dawkins and Venter, had the role of moderator, but let Dawkins take over. When Venter began to speak of specific genetically engineered correctives for the environment, however, he abruptly woke up.  Somebody once explained to him that when you talk about these subjects in Germany, "it causes an uproar—but everyone appears so calm!"  And he is right.

"Life is becoming technology"

The momentum was building and, always one to provoke, Venter was on the ball.  Dawkins' was inevitably the role of Devil's advocate and he asked whether Venter considers that all life is technology.  "Life is machinery," he answered, "which as we learn how to manipulate it, becomes a technology."  Dawkins, who wore shirt sleaves and an eccentric white and gray tie, and who came across a bit like a friendly math teacher, suddenly found himself delivering a tentative warning: the unchecked intermingling of gene pools could have unforeseen consequences.  He drew a parallel to the unforeseen devastation that introducing new microbes, plants, or animal species can cause to ecosystems.

Dawkins knows what he is talking about—in the '70s he acheived fame with his book entitled The Selfish Gene. At the start of his talk, he declared that "genes are information." From this Venter transitioned into the depiction of a future in which genetic information could be sent over email for the receiver to reassemble as a living being: "We can already reconstruct a chromosome in the laboratory." Last October, the Guardian already reported that Venter would soon be the first to create an entirely artificial life form—something he is accomplishing even as he speaks of a future in which genes are software and humans, at their discretion, can produce life that conforms to their wishes.  The question of what happens when genes, which behave all too selfishly in Dawkins' own portrayal of them, breed freely did not come up. 

At the same time as this staggering conversation took place on the podium, between a radical genetic engineer and a mastermind in the science of genetics, who evoked a future with artificially designed life and DNA-printers that is already emerging from their current scientific revolution, directly next door a group of Web Entrepreneurs and venture capitalists were engaged in a heated discussion about social networks and earning opportunities.  But next to the two dignified grey haired figures onstage, they suddenly seemed a little colorless—almost even a little outdated.

Translated by Karla Taylor

German Language Original