the first programmed life form, unbound, google taps into the wisdom and ignorance of crowds

Newsweek on Craig Venter and colleagues semi-creation of a human-made life form, Five possible implications of Craig Venter’s creation of synthetic organisms.

It’s easy to get carried away in the wake of Thursday’s announcement that Craig Venter & Co. have created what is in some sense the world’s first synthetic organism. Venter’s lab typed out the million letters of DNA that comprise the M. mycoides genome, had them translated into 1,000-letter chemical chunks, glued the chunks together using yeast and E. coli, and transplanted the result into the empty shell of a related bacterium (M. capricolum). Voilà: a cell “whose genetic heritage started in the computer,” in Venter’s words.

Venter and his team of researchers have and haven’t created a synthetic life form. They deserve credit for being able to assemble such a long strand of DNA. A major break through that has stalled other researchers ( the technique described above). As Newsweeks’s Mary Carmichael points out this is not the first synthetic genome. A polio virus was synthesized by Eckard Wimmer a few years ago. What Venter accomplished is like a programmer that takes some open source code, downloads it, writes some new code and cuts out some old, re-compiles it, and runs the new program. Venter downloaded the programming – gene sequencing, spliced out 14 genes that might make the bacterium pathogenic, appears to have rewritten and adjusted some code from one organism and uploaded it into and replaced another organism’s genetic code. Venter thus far has not said how he knows the new code works. That matters, but not as much as the fact the new code does work. That new code can be passed on to the next generation of  DNA code. The process of programming biology that can recreate its program process is what might be considered phenomenal. If not the first step, a major step forward in programming out oncogenes for instance. The native state of our genes is a lot of junk code, destructive code and some useless code. So just as digital programs can run with a few bugs it doesn’t matter if reprogrammed genes are not perfect or we’re not sure how they work as long as they do work. There are some ethical issues. Bacteria and viruses have been sliced and diced in every which way in order to understand their functions and make vaccines so the ethics questions are not completely new. Synthetic life forms do bring up the specter of who owns the life form and its code. Venter intends to patent the gene, but he received federal grants so does it really belong to him exclusively. NW’s analogy to Ben Franklin’s kite and electricity to the arrival of the first cell phone works to some degree. Though we’re probably not 200 years away from creating an organisms that creates wheat that will get all it’s water from the air even in the desert or a synthesized algae that makes clean fuel. Like a virulent strain of virus, researchers could create a nasty synthetic bio-weapon. That and other issues will likely need some updating as far as government regulation and oversight.

unbound

Web searches may sacrifice accuracy for popularity

By adding a subtle nudge to each of more than 1 billion search requests every day, Google may be steering the direction of public discussion.

Begin typing a word in the search box at google.com, and the Google Suggest feature starts kicking in ideas — “tiger” begets “tiger woods,” “tea” draws “tea party movement” and “craig” will summon “craigslist.”

“It is meant to be helpful, but from a public discourse perspective it is worrisome,” says Dominique Brossard, a University of Wisconsin-Madison life science communication professor.

“Worrisome” rather than evil or no big deal seems about right. Google has always had that element to their search algorithms. Lately they seem especially attuned to breaking stories and the latest melodramas – which usually show up at the top of the search page. It demonstrates the both the wisdom and ignorance of crowds. Experienced web searchers can deal with that easily enough, but newbies will be guided to what is most popular not to what is most relevant and factual.

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