Life As We Don't Know It

Publication: Chemical & Engineering News

Author: Ivan Amato

12/01/2008 - If you think of life on Earth as a magnificent incarnation of natural technology, then life has the classic double-edged character of all powerful technologies. This technology has produced a wondrous diversity of beings displaying a gorgeous marriage of form and function on hierarchical levels that span the range from cells to rain forests and beyond. Yet it also has created pathogens that indifferently kill millions of people each year, ecological disasters that wipe out species, and intelligent beings that deliberately perpetrate catastrophes on similar scales.

On Nov. 14, I attended a "discussion" at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., titled "Synthetic Biology: Coming Up Fast!" It made me wonder whether the scientific community might be approaching another Promethean moment, like the one associated with the emergence of nuclear technology last century and that ever since has committed humanity to shepherding nuclear technology's promise while containing its perils.

The discussants were Denise Caruso, executive director of the not-for-profit Hybrid Vigor Institute, a consultancy "dedicated to interdisciplinary and collaborative problem solving," and Rick Weiss, formerly a science writer with the Washington Post and now a senior fellow with the D.C.-based think tank Center for American Progress (CAP). The two chatted comfortably in a faux on-stage living room. CAP cosponsored the event with the Wilson Center's Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. The driver of their discussion is a cadre of scientists and entrepreneurs who run companies with names like Synthetic Genomics and who aim to create, exploit, and perhaps unleash new-to-the-world biological constructs.

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Pew is no longer active in this line of work, but for more information, visit the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies on

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