Daddy, please don't read me any more fairy tales about Mr. Venter and how his bacteria and biofuels will save the world!
Readers were aware last week when, once again, it was announced that Craig Venter, synthetic biologist, was poised to save the world.
Venter Institute synthetic biologists had stitched together the chromosome of the smallest bacterium in the world, Mycoplasma genitalium.
The scientific report had been published in the peer-reviewed magazine Science and from there the mainstream press did its usual slipshod job, spending time wishfully predicting the future.
This is because Americans are always jonesing for upper-class braggarts who promise simple one paragraph solutions to intractable problems. And with Venter as the top self-promoter in a field of bigtime self-promoters, synthetic biology is custom-made for the addiction.
Last November, writing at the Reg, DD came to the conclusion that there are only two types of stories on synthetic biology: Rewritten press releases distributed by newspapers, made only for the purpose of announcing the synthetic biologist and how world-changing his research effort/company will be; and stories explaining how synthetic biologists will revitalise the world, but bad synbiologists -- terrorists -- will be making diseases, bioterrors and bio-errors, killing millions.
These stories serve to create a bubble of mania surrounding synthetic biology. Secondarily, they indicate to some of us what happens when an allegedly serious profession, specialty journalists with virtually no college education in hard science other than courses on "the history of science" and "how to write about science for laymen," are unleashed on the public.
You can think of this bubble of mania as the lubricant for a still-unfolding Ponzi scheme in which more and more money is thrown into a fuming pot by investors enticed by enthusiastically uncritical news and gandiose proclamations. When synthetic biology and biofuels and the tagalong cure for global warming inevitably turn out not to be the practical alchemies they're now peddled as, the originals in the game will have made fortunes.
Everyone else, however, will be left holding bags of worthlessness and cruelly diminished expectations. What was thought of as sure gold will have vexingly transformed into lead.
So last week's news on synthetic biology achievement was par for the course. While the research was done by a colleague of Venter's, the professional news practice of declaring premature victory over the nation's problems and mastery over life itself quickly steered it back until it was simply all about Venter and miracles.
"The [bacterial] genome in Venter's lab in Rockville, Md., could revolutionize genetics, introducing a new world order in which the alchemy of life is broken down into the ultimate engineering project," gushed one woman for TIME.
"Man-made genomes could lead to new species that churn out drugs to treat disease, finely tuned vaccines that target just the right lethal bug, even cells that convert sunlight into a biofuel."
In our fairy tale near future-world of Venter and synthetic biology, global warming and disease are things of the past. And miraculous renewable energy will set the world free from oil, courtesy of algae. (Keep quiet about the bit that Mycoplasma genitalium, instead of being a custom-made producer of plentiful biofuel, is just a nuisance found inside your cock.)
"A team of North American scientists has discovered a way of replicating the DNA code of a bacterium that could eventually allow the creation of bacteria to manufacture biofuels," reported Reuters. "Dr. Craig Venter believes that specially-made micro-organisms can be created to produce hydrogen, while another strain could absorb excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere."
While Venter has not yet invented biofuel and saved all Americans, no reality mattered.
Even General Motors was dragged into the piece.
"The possibility of using microbes to create biofuel follows General Motors' announcement last week of a tie-up with bio-energy company Coskata, which has developed a method of allowing microbes to create bioethanol (a petrol substitute) not only from cellulosic plant fibre but also household waste, old car tires and
If you feel you're losing your mind because you haven't yet seen GM's cars that run on fuel from old tires, you're not alone. DD is right there with you. Everyday I fruitlessly scrutinize the eight-lane highway outside the house for signs of them.
In any case, since General Motors has recently only been known for gigantic fuel inefficient SUVs and pick-up trucks as well as losing profits and status to foreign auto-makers, one might come to the conclusion that if the company is investing in something, it's not very far down the road to miraculousness and innovation at all. In fact, it might be in just the opposite direction, speeding toward elaborate failure.
But back to the descriptions of the glorious future to be furnished by Craig Venter.
"[One synthetic biologist] said he is optimistic that technology will soon lead to microbes that can produce new biofuels and much more," declared the Hartford Courant newspaper. "[He] also foresees the use of synthetic DNA in the manufacture of new vaccines. Synthetic DNA may prove critical for creating new vaccines quickly in the event of a pandemic flu or SARs-like outbreak ... By creating genomes at will, engineers could potentially free themselves from the constraints of existing life ..."
"The work is not merely a demonstration of laboratory finesse, Venter insisted, but a step toward development of technologies that could grow fuel in bacterial vats and speed cures for diseases," reported the San Francisco Chronicle, quickly worming its way into Venter's trousers.
"We are sparking an industrial revolution," said Venter to the newspaper, which dubbed him "a flamboyant and often controversial figure in biotechnology who is not unaccustomed to big ideas ... The one human being on the planet whose entire genome has been converted into code is Craig Venter!"
Most of these pieces were exceptionally sloppy pieces of work, repeating the same cliches and essentially composed from only two sources -- either Craig Venter or a mouthpiece of Venter's, plus the guy who always is called to furnish the quote that synthetic biology will inevitably result in man-made plagues, Jim Thomas.
"Jim Thomas, a Montreal researcher for ETC, a Canadian environmental and social justice advocacy group, said the 'synthetic biology' work pursued by Venter's group is potentially dangerous and ought to be subject to government oversight," continued the Chronicle. "Because of the push toward rapid commercialization, an environmental release of a synthetic organism is inevitable," Thomas told the newspaper. "This is an ecological disaster waiting to happen."
The Washington Post's science reporter wrapped it up in one succinct splurge.
"Venter said the goal is to design novel microbes whose handcrafted genomes endow them with the ability to produce useful chemicals, including renewable synthetic fuels that could substitute for oil," reported Rick Weiss. "Critics, however, countered that without better oversight of the fledgling field, synthetic biology is more likely to lead to the creation of potent biological weapons and runaway microbes that could wreak environmental havoc."
Weiss had written a story containing exactly the same cliches about a month earlier.
"The ultimate goal is the design of mass-produced, plain genetic platforms - like the chassis of a car - for making microbes that could clean up toxic waste and produce new biofuels, pest-resistant crops, wear-resistant fabrics and medicines, experts say," wrote one of the Post's regional competitor's, The Baltimore Sun. It wasn apparently an instance of really great minds thinking exactly alike. "But critics say that Venter is moving too fast - and that his results could put new bioweapons in terrorists' hands and unleash uncontrollable agents that cause epidemics, transform landscapes and threaten food supplies."
In England, a columnist for the Guardian emitted the standard cant with a novel twist. Venter's research might make the blood-thirsty zombies in recent movies a reality rather than just a tasteless entertainment.
"Venter says his hope is that he will be able to create designer bugs that can be used to produce hydrogen and biofuels," wrote the Guardian's man in a piece called Playing God.
"Synthetic bugs could also be created to do nothing but absorb greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. If all goes to plan, Venter's breakthrough could be the silver bullet in our battle against climate change ... But while this kind of science is utterly breathtaking, it does also set off obvious alarm bells, especially for anyone who has recently watched 28 Days Later or I Am Legend. Are we really sure we know what we are doing by releasing an artificial lifeform from the confines of the Petri dish into the wider world?"
Perhaps one ought not to worry. When the zombies come, you will be able to hide in your new house, made by synthetic biologists.
"In a 2006 videotaped presentation, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said it might someday be possible to synthetically alter an acorn's DNA so that it sprouts an oak tree shaped like a house," reported The Baltimore Sun, in its piece lauding the miraculous Mr. Venter.
Earlier from the archives of "Blowing Craig Venter."