Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Synthetic Life and the Evolution of Corn - Closer Than You Think

This past week, scientists announced the successful artificial creation of a genome sequence (using computers) to control the behavior of a host microbe.

"As soon as this new software goes into the cell, the cell reads [it] and converts into the species specified in that genetic code."

The new bacteria replicated over a billion times, producing copies that contained and were controlled by the constructed, synthetic DNA.


As crazy as this sounds, human populations have been experimenting with nature for several millenia - in fact, this is how we got the plant we now call corn (but really should be called maize).

The most impressive aspect of the maize story is what it tells us about the capabilities of agriculturalists 9,000 years ago. These people were living in small groups and shifting their settlements seasonally. Yet they were able to transform a grass with many inconvenient, unwanted features into a high-yielding, easily harvested food crop. The domestication process must have occurred in many stages over a considerable length of time as many different, independent characteristics of the plant were modified.


While groups of people playing God in the past ended up creating a food source in just about every aspect of the American diet, groups of people playing God with synthetic lifeforms may not be so benign.

Bio-hacking already exists, and although it may lead to widespread biofuel production (beyond the means of government-subsidized, corn-derived ethanol), it will also yield all manner of unintended consequences.

And much like early crop cultivation did for the pre-Columbian civilizations in the Americas, Dr. Venter's breakthrough may take mankind to a whole new phase of development...

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