"To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life." -James Joyce
Craig Venter is brilliant. Brilliant enough, you might say, to enter the ranks of literary gods. So brilliant, he might not even know it.
Venter wants to patent the human genome--all 2.9 billion base pairs of it. And why not? The pioneering geneticist is, after all, the man responsible for sequencing it. Venter first set his sights on the intellectual rights in the 90s while still president of Celera Genomics. Later, the company's soured partnership with the publicly funded Human Genome Project served as a forecast of how genomics research might evolve as a competitive business enterprise, if the stakes ever went up. And they did.
In 2000, Celera won the genome race when Venter et al. produced a complete set of somewhere around 25,000 protein-coding genes ahead of schedule (98.5% of the projected total turned out to be other stuff). The genomics industry exploded, I got my first lab job and the rest is, as they say, history. But the best scientists are often the most tenacious; for Venter, decoding the recipe for humans wasn't enough.
Flash forward ten years to 2010. It wasn't exactly the year we made contact, but Venter made history (again) when his team became the first ever to create synthetic life. I'd say that beats meeting aliens. The bacterium-based life form was fitted with four unique "watermarks"--hidden in the DNA--to keep it traceable in case it ever got out. Venter played up the new technique, going so far as to embed an email address for whoever decoded the message first. And the message?
I'm guessing Venter wanted something personal, and meaningful, to brand his progeny--something more interesting than the average Google security question. What was the name of your first pet? In what town was your high school located? Or better, a famous world leader or influential philosopher.
Enter literary master James Joyce. Venter (a fan?) encoded a memorable line from Joyce's semi-autobiography A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Turns out the gesture wasn't quite good enough for the Joyce estate, because now the scientist is being sued. So much for paying the dead man a compliment. But something about this story goes far beyond typical legend and legality.
Invention, while often seen as something derived solely from logic and reason, has a strong creative component as well. Venter, if he wanted, could change the code's mappings to reveal Yeats instead of Joyce. Or Kafka or Borges or Melville--have your pick--as long as the message was identical in length. Inscribing DNA with a literary quote, after all, isn't exactly mind-blowing from a technological standpoint. The cultural implications, on the other hand, are nothing short of inspiring. Venter may forever be known as the guy who gave life to man's first bona-fide creation. But to discover a new literary genre in genetic code? Now that's a triumph.
Christopher writes about society, science and technology. His masters thesis for George Mason University explores the effect of social media on science discourse. He resides in New York City.
- PHYSICAL SCIENCES
- EARTH SCIENCES
- LIFE SCIENCES
- SOCIAL SCIENCES
Subscribe to the newsletter
Stay in touch with the scientific world!
Know Science And Want To Write?
- Why An Extra Planet Can't Be Hidden Behind The Sun Or Above The South Pole
- My Applied National Security Paper. Being President Isn't For Idiots.
- Why Has Organic Farming Flatlined?
- Hugh Hefner's Wife Was Not Poisoned By Breast Implants
- Top Scientists Chastise Greenpeace
- SYRINA: A Trojan Horse For Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals?
- The Daily Physics Problem - 5
- "I try this one... I am a bit rusty, so my solution can be dramatically wrong. Given that B is uniform..."
- "wow! with a name like Wilhelmina Pelegrina, she can't do no wrong. also,some of the problems in..."
- "This is the best you could do? Golden Rice is in the public domain - the lack of any corporate..."
- "Dylan, okay first TL:DR, the answer is that for anything of 10 km upwards, months or a year or..."
- "Some more citations to work into the text later on:Eric Christensen, director of the UA's Catalina..."
- Cancer As Modern Lifestyle Disease? Only If There Was Processed Food 2 Million Years Ago
- Blood Test for Alzheimer’s: Close Or Hype?
- The Flavor Enhancing Molecule in Roasted Garlic Powder
- Pediatricians Should Provide Sex Ed, But Many Don’t
- Calico Cats Are A Walking Genetics Lesson
- Statins Could Help Prevent Some Pregnancy Ills
- An extraordinary standard: New NIST protein could spur biopharmaceutical innovation
- Early detection of leukemia patients' resistance to therapy
- Research reveals restorative justice reduces recidivism
- Recovery of dopamine function emerges with recovery from smoking
- Scientists call for increased federal investment in sustainable agriculture