I am attending the Web 2.0 Summit. It's the final day of the conference and human genome pioneer J. Craig Venter is being interviewed by Tim O'Reilly. Listening to Venter, you get the feeling that Silicon Valley, the home of companies like Intel, Apple, Cisco, HP and Google, is the past. The computer industry become a kind of rust belt, and synthetic biology will dominate the 21st century, if we survive it.
Venter's team is working on designing and assembling living genetic material starting from scratch using synthetic biology techniques. The first living bacterium synthetically designed will be announced in the next few weeks, he said. "The software drives the building of [the DNA's] own hardware," he explained.
Synthetic biology could be vital to solving environmental problems. "The biggest challenge facing the planet after sequencing the human genome is what we are doing with the environment. We are turning to biology to replace existing infrastructure. We have a new biofuel in testing--a green jet fuel," Venter said. Biofuel cells driven by bacteria could make electricity and clean water, and each home could have the ability to generate fuel in the future.
Regarding fears that rogue bacterium could decimate the human species, Venter said. "People get paranoid about bacteria. They are living on the wrong planet. We are in a complete bacterial spectrum," Venter said.
Venter's organization (the J. Craig Venter Institute) has addressed some of policy and governance issues related to synthetic biology. Along with and the Center for Strategic & International Studies, Venter's institute published, "Synthetic Genomics: Options for Governance."
The technology of synthetic biology will continue to evolve rapidly, but not without the important, contentious and lengthy debates about the societal impact and potential dangers of a world in which new forms of genetic material are introduced to the planet at a highly accelerated rate.