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Biology's Brave New World

The Promise and Perils of the Synbio Revolution

Germs 2.0: the first self-replicating bacteria made in a lab, May 2010.
Germs 2.0: the first self-replicating bacteria made in a lab, May 2010. (Corbis / Thomas J. Deerinck / Science Photo Library)

In May 2010, the richest, most powerful man in biotechnology made a new creature. J. Craig Venter and his private-company team started with DNA and constructed a novel genetic sequence of more than one million coded bits of information known as nucleotides. Seven years earlier, Venter had been the first person in history to make a functioning creature from information. Looking at the strings of letters representing the DNA sequence for a virus called phi X174, which infects bacteria, he thought to himself, “I can assemble real DNA based on that computer information.” And so he did, creating a virus based on the phi X174 genomic code. He followed the same recipe later on to generate the DNA for his larger and more sophisticated creature. Venter and his team figured out how to make an artificial bacterial cell, inserted their man-made DNA genome inside, and watched as the organic life form they had synthesized moved, ate, breathed, and replicated itself.

As he was doing this, Venter tried to warn a largely oblivious humanity about what was coming. He cautioned in a 2009 interview, for example, that “we think once we do activate a genome that yes, it probably will impact people’s thinking about life.” Venter defined his new technology as “synthetic genomics,” which would “start in the computer in the digital world from digitized biology and make new DNA constructs for very specific purposes. . . . It can mean that as we learn the rules of life we will be able to develop robotics and computational systems that are self-learning systems.” “It’s the beginning of the new era of very rapid learning,” he continued. “There’s not a single aspect of human life that doesn’t have the potential to be totally transformed by these technologies in the future.”

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