As I’m sure many of you know, Craig Venter and his teamed have succeeded in designing the first example of synthetic life. At this stage, all they did was copy the DNA sequence from one species of bacteria, take this synthetic chromosome, and get a donor cell from another species to accept it. Once the synthetic chromosome was inside the donor cell, it took charge and instantly converted one species into another. Now scientists have a system set up that awaits new software programs.
Yet Venter himself views this scientific advance as having a philosophical implication:
Venter also points to what the cells–powered by genomes made in a lab from four bottles of chemicals, based on instructions stored on a computer–reveal about what life is. “This is as much a philosophical as a technological advance,” he says. “The notion that this is possible means bacterial cells are software-driven biological machines. If you change the software, you build a new machine. I’m still amazed by it.”
Personally, I would say that a bacterial cell is a software-driven, machine-dependent system, but who am I to argue with the leading scientist in the field of designing life? I’m quite happy to point out that cells as software-driven biological machines really amount to the same thing I have been saying for close to a decade now – cells are an example of carbon-based nanotechnology. People might not agree, but they can hardly make a strong case that this description and perception is unreasonable.
Yet the reasonable core of my thesis goes further. If you have read this blog for some time, you know I have been exploring the possibility that our planet was seeded with bioengineered cells that terraformed the planet to facilitate a front-loaded objective. Well, check out this little except from an interview with Venter:
Venter was also asked if genetically engineered bacteria could someday terraform the surface of Mars to make the planet habitable. Sure, he said, and they might also pave the way for further exploration of space:
We are in a bacterial universe. There’s been questions from some people at NASA; could we design microbes that would enable long-term spaceflight by regenerating oxygen or destroying waste products such as carbon dioxide. So, I think this is one of those intriguing areas, perhaps like the early electronics industry, where we have some basic tools, and we’re limited more by our imaginations right now, and I think there will be some very exciting solutions, that new young scientists come up with in the future.
People at NASA are asking about using bioengineered cells as part of space exploration? Hmmm. Just who was it that wrote, “Looking at a cell is like looking into the future of our own designs?”