“A DNA-Driven World” – Craig Venter’s vision for synthetic biology

December 14, 2007

On Monday 4th December, BBC1 broadcast the 32nd annual Richard Dimbleby Lecture featuring Dr J. Craig Venter and his vision of “a DNA-driven world” (00:03:54).

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David Dimbleby introduces The Richard Dimbleby Lecture 2007: Dr J Craig Venter – A DNA-Driven World (BBC1, Dec 4 2007, 22:35)

As David Dimbleby, son of the late Richard Dimbleby, states in his introduction to the lecture, Venter is widely recognised as one of the “pioneers” (00:01:32) in this area. His achievements include the founding of Celera Genomics – a somewhat controversial contributor to the Human Genome Project; The Institute of Genomic Research; and more recently Synthetic Genomics – a company whose work has “opened the door to the creation of the first artificial life form on the planet” (00:00:58). According to Dimbleby, the purpose of the lecture was to hear “simply, clearly and without gimmicks” (00:01:24) what synthetic biology might hold for the future.

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Dr J. Craig Venter presents The Richard Dimbleby Lecture 2007: Dr J Craig Venter – A DNA-Driven World (BBC1, Dec 4 2007, 22:35)

Venter describes synthetic biology as “life which is forged not by Darwinian evolution but created by human intelligence” (00:05:54), and while his lecture culminates in consideration of artificial lifeforms “capable of creating energy”(00:03:26) and designed to “combat climate change” (00:03:39) he covers a number of additional topics. These include the need to build a “scientifically-literate society” (00:05:24) and the “need to move toward a preventative philosophy” (00:15:20) in medicine and health care. A full transcript of the lecture is available on the BBC website here.

Throughout the lecture, Venter only mentions the ethical issues implicit within his work once and specifically in the context of the process of ongoing ethical review at Synthetic Genomics, a “unique and significant feature”(00:38:13) which he suggests is often “overlooked by the news media” (00:38:17). Indeed Venter himself instigated the assessment of the ethical implications of synthetic biology and the creation of ‘minimal genome’ organisms in the laboratory (see Cho et al., Science, 10 December 1999: Vo. 286. No. 5447, pp. 2082-2090). Within this assessment, a number of ethical issues raised by synthetic biology are identified including:

  • the investigation of the ‘minimal genome’ as contributing to reductionism
  • the creation of artificial life as an example to scientists ‘playing God’ in the laboratory

These issues are discussed at length by Cho et al. (1999), however, within his lecture Dr Venter appears to suggest that ethical concerns associated with such organisms may be addressed simply by “strict containment” (00:38:38) and a designed inability to survive outside of the laboratory. Given this, the 2007 Dimbleby lecture might be best used as a resource for detailed information on the kinds of problems artificial life and synthetic biology could be used to address, particularly in relation to bioremediation and the production of green energy. However, any bioethical discussion of the issues they raise might be best informed by alternative sources, for example Cho et al. (1999) or Rinaldi (2004) “A new Code for Life”, EMBO reports, Vol 5, No 4: pp. 336-339.

The Richard Dimbleby Lecture 2007: Dr J Craig Venter – A DNA-Driven World was first broadcast on BBC1 on December 4th 2007 at 22.35 (TRILT identifier: 00778B33). The programme is 45 minutes in length.