Saturday, June 25, 2011

A Great Link

American biologist Craig Venter is best known for his key roles in being part of the team that sequenced the human genome, and in 2010 for announcing that a team led by him had created the first self-replicating synthetic life, by synthesizing a very long DNA molecule containing an entire bacterium genome, and introducing this into another cell.

He's also a man who has previously expressed an interest in extraterrestrial life.

So it should probably come as no surprise that he seems to be interested in combining the two. DARPA has just announced the 100 Year Spaceship Program, a blue-sky project which aims to enable a manned journey between the stars sometime in the next century or so. One of the proposals that has been floated, and is receiving a notice in virtually all of the press articles about the project, is Venter's notion of reconstituting humans from genomes launched into outer space.

Now, this is a very, very small program (the award for the best idea to carry forward is only $500,000, a drop in the bucket of military-industrial-scientific research), but this is the kind of thing that can stir the private sector to go far further, because it gives the whole idea an air of intellectual legitimacy. One can also assume that if this is what DARPA is willing to discuss publicly, then privately they are already working away on all sorts of ideas along this line. Any number of other government agencies are probably doing the same thing.

That's all beside the point for me, however. My "take away" from this news, and in particular Venter's idea, is that is we can imagine doing it, and leading scientists and entrepreneurs take the ideas seriously, then we should also consider the possibility that someone else, "out there", has also imagined all of these possibilities... and then actually made some of them happen.

Which leads one to consider Venter's idea, perhaps the most interesting of them all. If we can imagine seeding other worlds with the human genome, and reconstituting the human race there (a plan which obviates the need to worry about how to get there, because we could someday send thousands of ships at subluminal speeds throughout our galactic neighborhood, without needing to be concerned about how long it would take to get to distant worlds), then perhaps "we" already have - if not quite in a galaxy "far far away", then on a world "far far way".

In Canada, we all look to other parts of our world for our ancestors, whether it be England, Scotland, Germany, Italy, India, or if you go back far enough for the aboriginals, Asia. But what if we could all look somewhere else for our true ancestors - to the stars? What if billions of years ago, a quirky group of blue-sky human dreamers somewhere else in our galaxy (or even another galaxy, if we go back far enough), came up with the same idea that Venter has come up with... and then actually made it work?

And so perhaps here we are, getting ready not to travel to the stars for the first time and as a unique species, but rather getting ready to continue the journey that the human race began long ago, a link in a great, never-ending chain of life.

Paul Kimball


Anonymous said...

I started having the same thoughts since I was 7. Really got into this way of thinking in grade 4. People/teachers/parents called me 'creative'. I was just *thinking*, outloud. KMM

Paul Kimball said...


Indeed, it's not a new idea really. It's been around in some form or another in science fiction for quite some time (Mac and I used elements of it for the screenplay for Doing Time / The Icarus Imperative). What makes this new development interesting, at least to me, is that the person doing the speculating is Mr. Genome himself, which moves it closer to the realm of science fact (or, of not fact, at least possible) as opposed to science fiction. It gives it the imprimatur of intellectual respectability, which might in turn get people thinking about possibilities. such as the one I mentioned here.


Anonymous said...

*like* :)

Tyler Kokjohn said...

And just what has Dr. Venter actually done? Only totally changed genome analysis technology/strategy and revealed the extraordinary biodiversity all around us. Oh, and he had to do so while being actively opposed by colleagues at the outset. Unable to acquire the financial support needed to match his vision, he struck out on his own and beat the federally-funded scientists at their own game. That's all.

Yes, when someone like Dr. Venter begins talking, it may pay to listen. What is DARPA doing? Who knows? Well, we do know one thing, DARPA seems to have an eye or two on Dr. Venter.

Perhaps you will produce a documentary on Dr. Venter. It is a fascinating story.

Best wishes.