Are There Some Things Man Was Not Meant To Know? - InformationWeek
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4/2/2006
10:25 PM
Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner
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Are There Some Things Man Was Not Meant To Know?

Listening to genetics pioneer Craig Venter describe the future of biological engineering, any reasonable person has to ask whether to move forward with this new industry.

Listening to genetics pioneer Craig Venter describe the future of biological engineering, any reasonable person has to ask whether to move forward with this new industry.Delivering the opening keynote Sunday at the InformationWeek Spring Conference, Venter described a future, within our lifetimes, where scientists are able to create customized life forms and bacteria to replace fossil fuels, clean up pollution, and mitigate global warming. Moreover, by driving the cost of sequencing the human genome from its current $110 million to $1,000, biologists and doctors would be able to map individual people's DNA on a mass scale, getting a better understanding of how diseases and cancers work. Doctors would be able to save lives more effectively and cheaply by catching problems early on. For example, colon cancer caught early can be fixed with inexpensive surgery, but once the cancer has progressed to the stage where a patient displays symptoms, treatment becomes hugely expensive--and ineffective. ("Ineffective" in this context meaning "funeral.")

So what's the harm in technology that can cure disease, wean the world off petrochemicals, and clean up the environment?

The same technology could also be used for biowarfare and bioterrorism.

But Venter had an answer to that. Asked whether emerging biological technology will be used for warfare, he said, "I'm very doubtful that it will."

Biological warfare and bioterror have proven far, far less deadly than new natural diseases, he said. The U.S. and USSR each spent hundreds of millions of dollars to create biological weapons and had some success, for example, creating a new version of smallpox. The incidents of anthrax terrorism, soon after 9/11, killed a few people.

Compare that record with five million people killed each year from malaria and tuberculosis. "Smallpox has killed more people on this planet than any other emerging infection," he said.

The one-year worldwide flu pandemic of 1918 killed 20 million to 40 million people--more than died in World War I or the four-year Bubonic Plague almost 600 years earlier. The cause of that flu? A mutation of avian flu--hence the global concern over bird flu today.

The opportunity to do good with biological technology is far greater than the opportunity for evil.

But the risks are there. Venter said he has urged that the gene-mapping technology he pioneered not be used to research human pathogens. So far, that advice has been ignored, he noted, as two of the first organisms mapped were the polio and 1918 flu viruses.

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