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Craig Venter’s Brave New World

Craig Venter’s artificial bacterium debuted almost simultaneously with Svante Pääbo’s publication of the greater part of the Neanderthal genome. Put the two together and ask whether we could – or should – recreate a living, breathing Neanderthal. Of the technologies that would be required, the Venter team has proofed an important component. Dolly was cloned from an entire diploid genome of an adult sheep’s udder cell, dropped into an enucleated ovum. The Venter equivalent of Ian Wilmut’s achievement would be to go to the library (or in this case the Internet), take down the book labelled ‘Sheep Genome Project’ (or rather download the data files), and synthesize a complete set of sheep chromosomes from four bottles of chemicals labelled A, T, C and G. The synthetic genome would then be dropped into an enucleated sheep cell, as per Dolly.

While they were about it, the team might improve on the genome of any one donor sheep by substituting, say, wool-growing genes from The Champion Merino Genome Project and hardiness genes from The Soay Genome Project. Maybe some code from the Goat Genome Project to broaden the creature’s preferred diet, or from the Chamois Genome Project to give it a better head for heights? Perhaps even a Cut and Paste job from the Otter Genome Project, to give the über-sheep a taste for water sports.

We’d need to do something similar to re-grow a Neanderthal from Svante Pääbo’s data. Or, later, a computed intermediate between the chimpanzee and human genomes to re-create the 6-million-year-old common ancestor. And then, might a born-again Lucy split the difference again?

The technical difficulties would be formidable, but present progress suggests that they will be overcome. I leave the speciesist ethical difficulties on one side, except to note that ethical thinking, too, has a way of progressing as the decades go by. There is the harder problem that Pääbo’s Neanderthal sequence is only 60 percent complete, and 100 percent may be unattainable. Presumably the residue would be coloured in from the H. sapiens genome, and that could create technical problems as well as compromise the authenticity of the clone as a ‘true’ Neanderthal.

But Neanderthal bones are tens of thousands of years old. Should we disinter Charles Darwin’s bones from Westminster Abbey with the same insouciance as the Roman Catholic Church is now displaying toward the remains of his contemporary, Cardinal Newman? Might a new identical twin brother of the great naturalist ride shotgun to Craig Venter’s future twin, on a round-the-world DNA-harvesting voyage? Could Darwin Junior be mathematically enhanced by a few judicious splicings from the Albert Einstein Genome Project? Or get a head-start in molecular genetics by strategic borrowing from the Francis Crick Genome Project? The Jeremy Bentham Genome Project might suffer utilitarian doubts over whether the taxidermic curiosity in the Entrance Hall of University College, London still contains any of his authentic remains.

Of course no steps were taken to preserve the DNA of any of these great men. Today’s equivalents don’t need to be cryogenically preserved for the Craig Venters of the future. Nothing so messy or expensive. Give or take some epigenetic mark-ups, a simple computer disk is all it takes: just miles and miles of A, T, C, G.

And the J Craig Venter Genome Project is already on line...



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Ion Torrent CEO and chairman Jonathan Rothberg
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