Saturday, May 22, 2010

Digital-Genetic Feedback

After reading Hansen's work on the enframing of data I found this comment by the brilliant but ethically challenged biotech pirate, Craig Venter chillingly resonant:
"It's the first self-replicating cell on the planet that's parent is a computer," says Venter, referring to the fact that his team converted a cell's genome that existed as data on a computer into a living organism.
Of course, the soundbyte is a drastic oversimplification of what's really happened here, but at the same time, as a proof of concept, it's a significant step towards the broader introduction of artificial, technologically derived forms into organic life.

This specific experiment only used genetic information that had been read, stored, and then reproduced chemically, without intervention into the functional content of the code. In other words, this experiment does not mean that we are any closer to developing artificial genes or in any deliberate way adding to existing, naturally evolved genomes. What it does represent is the entrance of genetic content into the circuit of digital reproducibility, and as holds true from Hansen, processes of manipulation potentialized by digitization.

Over the past three decades, genetic information from various sources (most notably in the 1990–2003 Human Genome Project) has been actively processed and recorded in digital databases. Nearly all of this data is still meaningless to us as the process of correlating genetic data to any form or function within an organism is supremely challenging (hence the controversy when Venter tried to patent the human genome despite having no insight into the raw data to which he was laying claim).

This particular experiment, however, allows the potential for the automated development of genetic code along the lines of the automated production of pharmaceuticals (eg. combinatorial biosynthesis) which has been successfully applied for decades. Having developed a process of effectively "stitching together [a genome] from smaller stretches of DNA synthesised in the lab" from raw data, Venter's lab has essentially created a method for producing genetic versions of Frankenstein's monster, the difference being that billions of attempts could be efficiently made in order to arrive at one that actually thrives. While this technology remains as yet unapplied, one cannot help but wonder how this engagement of the digital and the genetic has already altered our status in the universe. As Siegfried Kracauer wrote in "Boredom", "Radio likewise vaporizes beings, even before they have intercepted a single spark."

Brian Johnson

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