The Soup of Life

by Russ Roberts on July 25, 2004

in Science

In the August issue of the always-fascinating Wired magazine, James Shreeve takes a look at human genome hunter Craig Venter’s current project, an attempt to map and understand all life, every microbe, every gene. OK, it’s not quite clear what Venter is up to other than it involves scopping up a lot of water in Polynesia and elsewhere and filtering it for microbes.

Carl Linnaeus thought there were no more than 12,000 species of plants and animals. We’re at 1.7 million and counting. Of that 1.7 million, only 6,000 are microbes. There may be as many as 10 million. Or 100 million. We’re not sure. But it’s probably bigger than 6,000 and Venter will have something to do with it.

Venter is despised for trying to profit from mapping the human genome. On this project he’s promising to make all his data public. But now he hits bureaucratic barriers from foreign governments who want a piece of the action and make it hard for him to scoop up water from their territorial waters.

The whole project, which may turn out to be a complete bust, is made possible by the millions (hundreds of millions, I think) that Venter made as an entrepreneur. He may be crazy but he’s spending his own money. Many good things come from the concentration of wealth in a free country where competition protects us from much of the bad things. And then again, Venter may be a genius who will change our lives for the better at his own risk.

Here’s a quote from Juan Enriquez, a friend of Venter’s. “The world is going genomic. If you do not perceive the possibilities of this shift, if you say no instead of yes, you will be left in the past. There will be whole societies who end up serving mai tais on the beach because they don’t understand this.”

I know what he’s trying to say, and its a nice quote. But I suspect most of the changes will come whether one nation or another embraces genomics or not, just as the world has benefited from Edison even if in the early days, some cities found electricity very frightening. If some societies don’ t understand the importance of genomics, they eventually will.

My view is that the genetic revolution is coming whether we like it or not, whether we have ethical or religious or environmental qualms about it or not, whether we ban it or try and slow it down. The human desire to know is very hard to stop. The Craig Venters of the world will be out there discovering new stuff. It’s only a matter of time.

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