Friday, February 29, 2008

Synthetic Life

In today's San Francisco Chronicle, the article on the TED conference in Monterey centered on yesterday's speech by Craig Venter. Remember him from the Human Genome Project? The guy who said - and proved, as I remember - that a profit-making organization could beat a non-profit to the goal. Mr. Venter, having followed that up by sequencing his own personal genome, is now trying to build, from scratch, the genome for a "single, sustainable, living cell." Mr. Venter imagines
Imagine an organism that consumes carbon dioxide and can be used to battle global warming.
I have really bad news for Mr. Venter. He's re-inventing the wheel. These organisms already exist - they're called "plants." If he ever came out of his laboratory, he might even see some of them.


  1. Duh!

    They keep cutting down the Brazilian rainforests, which are said to constitute some enormous percentage of the world's transpiring vegetation, and no one does a thing. They're cutting down trees to sell for wood (lumber) to "civilized" countries, then they make grazing land out of the clearcuts to sell beef to MacDonald's. We're doing the same here, raising corn to feed to hogs to make more pork--but when the pigs produce mountains of shit, they just let this drain into the soil and pollute the countryside, instead of recycling it.

    If we could simply rotate our crops on smaller plots, and keep the mix various, we could easily feed all our people for a small percentage of a median income (and with better diets). But capitalism doesn't work that way. If you can exploit real estate for a higher return (tract homes, livestock raising, corporate monoculture), they'll do that every time. And they do. The ironies proliferate ad nauseam.

    Meanwhile, we're busily "bringing" the undeveloped countries into "the modern world" (paradigm). At the rate it's going, China will soon be the dirtiest, ugliest, most hectic and crowded and unhealthy place to live in history. This is progress?

  2. Anonymous10:43 PM

    I am moving more and more toward the possibility that I saw expressed recently in the title of an article, namely that capitalism and the survival of the planet as an ecosphere suitable for human (and other) life support are mutually exclusive. Back about 3 decades ago, I began reading articles on sustainability, and was left with the conviction that it's not that we don't know what to do, but rather that we won't, being treated instead to all sorts of tokenism and ersatz ecofriendliness.

    I have to second your thoughts, Curtis, even as I struggle in every way I know to promote the idea of a world amenable to the well being of my grandson (and everyone else's grandchildren).

    Anonymous David

  3. It's misery-making meditation, David.

    Just now I'm listening to a sweet new song by--of all people, Vampire Weekend!--called Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa. It makes me feel almost as good as I did in 1968 listening to Simon & Garfunkel.

    I was also heartened to see Cormac McCarthy during the Academy Awards ceremony stand up in his seat, with real tears in his eyes, as the Coen Brothers took the big prizes for their adaptation of his No Country For Old Man. McCarthy's Pulitzer winning novel The Road posits a dreary bombed-out future (somewhat reminiscent of Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker, though darker), in which a man and his son wander across a devastated landscape on a journey towards an undefined salvation. McCarthy's real son, a boy of perhaps 12 or 13, a late child since McCarthy's now 75, looked up to him with admiration and hope--the hope and apprehension all sons feel for fathers--and pulled on his dad's coat-tail.

    Shakespeare's predominant impression is usually of waste. Waste of human potential. And now, waste of our world. We must believe in the possibility of our sustainability with the same fervor that once drove religious fanaticism. I'm not optimistic.