Lost in the Noise?

May 19, 2010 is an interesting day in the history of the world, though its significance passed by unnoticed by most people – even people who watch for momentous events. But today, two thing happened that will, in their knock-on effects, change the world in ways every bit as profound as the discovery of DNA.

One of them comes to Scientific American belatedly (it was originally published on May 16) from the atom smasher at Fermilab, which may just have answered the fundamental question of existence: Why are we here?

I’m not talking metaphysics, I’m talking physics. There’s been a problem in fundamental physics that goes like this: Matter and Antimatter are both created out of the probabilistic churning of the quantum foam in the vacuum all the time – and then they annihilate one another. It’s this kind of probabilistic interaction that produced the Big Bang, but if matter and antimatter annihilate one another, then why should there be anything at all?

Well, after crunching a couple decades worth of data from Fermilab, it looks like occasionally, in special circumstances (like those that prevailed at the time of the Big Bang), the quantum foam produces about 1% more matter than antimatter, so when all the annihilation happens, there’s a residue.

Assuming that the data holds up, we now know with quite a lot of surety why we’re here: because we, and the rest of the universe, were in that one percent of matter which didn’t get annihilated.

But more important than that is the scientific paper today out of AAAS from the lab of Craig Venter, the man who invented shotgun sequencing, the method of DNA sequencing that is now the most widely used in the world. In a modest paper entitled CREATION OF A BACTERIAL CELL CONTROLLED BY A CHEMICALLY SYNTHESIZED GENOME, Venter and his team announced something that will change the world every bit as profoundly as the printing press once did: The creation of an artificial organism.

Let me reiterate: Humans have now created, from scratch (the genome from scratch, that is), a life form that can reproduce, metabolize, and respond to stimuli. An artificial, designed genome runs the show. The ability to do this is something we’ve been seeking for centuries, and now that it’s here the implications are astounding. We now have the ability to, for example, resurrect extinct species, create designer organisms to dispose of pollution or convert electricity from sunlight, and that’s only the very, very tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Remember this date. In twenty or thirty years, when nothing in the world is the same and never will be again, you’ll have Craig Venter to thank for it, and May 19 will be the day on which you remember that it was today (well, yesterday now), that the human race became the author of an entire biosphere, rather than simply the usurping editor of the one in which we arose.

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  1. Great… Now in a billion years we’re going to have to sacrifice one of us to this new life form because they screwed up somehow.

  2. The eternal pessimist in me followed Scott’s line of thinking. The first thing through my head after reading the blogpost was Alan Shepard’s prayer: “Lord, don’t let us screw up.”

    Then I read Nobilis’ mind and thought “Ooh! New story idea!” 🙂

  3. J. Daniel Sawyer

    Scott, that comment had me rolling around laughing for a good twenty minutes — well played!

  4. I think you may have slightly overstated Ventner’s achievement, Dan: only the genome itself was made “from scratch”. They put that genome into an existing bacterium, after removing the bacterium’s own genome, in order to transform it into the new synthetic organism. It’s still a stunning achievement, but it’s still not quite baked-from-scratch artificial life.

  5. J. Daniel Sawyer

    Added a parenthetical for clarity 🙂

  6. Dan,
    To add to Chris’ comment:
    It is my understanding that the genome itself is only ‘artificial’ in the sense that Ventner combined many different pieces of existing DNA sequences from existing organisms and tied them together and got them to function as a single whole, viable genome.
    He had to overcome many obstacles to get the parts to synchchronize, which is amazing, but he didn’t create them out of nothing, ie., nongenetic materials.
    I realize this is splitting hairs; the thought of being able to create an actual chimera is awesome. The idea has been around since at least the earliest Greek mythology, even since the heyday of the Egyptian pharoahs, if you look at some of their divinities.
    And yes, I agree that the possible outcomes of tampering with life in this way are pretty damn scary.
    A possible nuclear bomb in the hands of terrorists.
    Let us hope our ethics can keep up with our power to change life on our fragile planet.

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