BOOK REVIEW: How To Defeat Your Own Clone by Kyle Kurpinski and Terry D Johnson

Paul Raven @ 21-06-2010

How To Defeat Your Own Clone by Kyle Kurpinski and Terry D JohnsonHow To Defeat Your Own Clone (and Other Tips For Surviving the Biotech Revolution by Kyle Kurpinski and Terry D Johnson

Bantam Books, February 2010; 180pp; US$14.00 RRP – ISBN13: 978-0533385786

If there’s one good thing that’s come out of the cultural opposition to science in the West, it’s a wave of new popular science media. The guiding principle seems to be “make it fun, give it a hook, deliver as much hard material as you can without provoking the gag reflex”, which goes some way to explain the popularity of science blogs – small chunks of science wrapped up in tasty and palatable context is a great format for lay readers with an interest in the topic, but without the specialist knowledge to follow the journal scene. Kurpinski and Johnson’s How To Defeat Your Own Clone is full of bloggy zing, and neatly skewers numerous pop-culture skiffy clichés – the scientifically-impossible clones of cinema and television – in order to entice the reader into a topic that promises to become increasingly controversial and pertinent in the coming years. Continue reading “BOOK REVIEW: How To Defeat Your Own Clone by Kyle Kurpinski and Terry D Johnson”

Storming heaven: Craig Venter and team create synthetic life

Paul Raven @ 21-05-2010

Schematic demonstrating the assembly of a synthetic M. mycoides genome in yeast.Unless you’ve been underneath that oft-mentioned hypothetical internet-proof rock for the last twelve hours or so, you’ll already have an idea of what today’s (and probably this year’s) big science story is. It is, of course, the announcement by Craig Venter and his team that they’ve successfully created the first fully synthetic self-replicating bacterial lifeform. There are many bits of coverage, though The Guardian has been good enough to include a document scan of the actual scientific paper on which the stories are based. [image credit Science/AAAS; ganked from Wired article]

The tabloid terror and hand-wringing will take a few days to filter through, I expect, as will the condemnations from religious figureheads and marginal cranks… quality fire and brimstone takes time to write, as any author will tell you. That said, The Guardian (yes, again – I’m just such a Limey pinko leftie progressive at heart, sorry) sets their religion-beat blogger on the matter early, and he manages to ask the questions that everyone else will pose, only without resorting to the apocalyptic imagery and overstatement required to elevate the uninterested to the outraged: has Venter made mankind into gods?

“Life is basically the result of an information process – a software process” says Venter, and “Starting with the information in a computer, we put it into a recipient cell, and convert it into a news species”. But though this information clearly exists in some sense, it’s impossible to say what kind of thing it is, because it isn’t a thing at all. Whatever this may be, it isn’t material, and it isn’t bound by physical laws. Information turns out to be as elusive and as omnipresent as God once was.

I don’t mean that they are both the same because clearly they are not. What’s important is that neither fits into any kind of common sense category; in orthodox theology, the idea of existence without God is senseless: not meaningless, but self-contradictory. Something similar is true of information in the sense that Venter uses it. It isn’t the things that people tell each other: it is the fundamental regularities of nature that scientists discover. A universe without information could not exist and certainly couldn’t contain scientists.


“We are limited mostly by our imaginations” Venter says. The worry is whether our imaginations will prove up to the task. The trouble with gods, as the Greek philosophers observed, is that they were not any morally better than humans, just more powerful.

Smart people, the Ancient Greeks. I can’t see synthetic life driving any definitive nails into the coffin of faith, myself; that particular battle is a movable feast, and I’m increasingly convinced we’ll never be free of it. But what’s very certain is that we just stepped into a bigger, scarier, more amazing and more science fictional world… and what’s almost as certain is that the real benefits and pitfalls of this new phase of scientific and technological endeavour will probably be very different to the speculative ones that will be kicked around for the next few weeks.

But hey, why let that stop us? Speculation can be it’s own reward, after all – at least, that’s one of the many reasons I enjoy reading good science fiction. So sound off in the comments – is Venter trespassing in the realms of the divine, or is this just the next glorious and inevitable step in the apotheosis of the naked apes?

A spoonful of friendly bacteria helps the medicine go down

Tom James @ 21-08-2009

pillsGenetically engineered bacteria have been used to deliver therapies for bowel disorders like inflammatory bowel disease:

The bacterium is able to deliver the protein, a human growth factor called KGF-2, directly to the damaged cells that line the gut, unlike other treatments which can cause unwanted side effects. Also unlike other treatments, it is envisaged that patients will be able to control the medication themselves by ingesting xylan, perhaps in the form of a drink.

I am not 1 of the 400 Britons who suffers from IBD but it is wonderful to see that genetic engineering has such excellent medical applications.

[from Science Daily][image from Deco Fernandez on flickr]

The future is biological

Tom James @ 17-08-2009

hummingbirdWired does an excellent job of focusing on a day-to-day aspect of an imminently transformative technology. Much is spoken of the coming biotech revolution, but industrial designers like Tuur Van Balen focus on the how biotechnology will present itself at the most basic level:

The 1s and 0s of software live in shiny metals shielded by colourful plastics; biological data lurks in dampness, in pipettes and test tubes. Hacking is about the culture of garages and workshops; DIY bio lives somewhere between the kitchen and the garden. You need mixing bowls and hygiene, beakers and taps. Every article about DIY bio seems to mention a salad-spinner. This isn’t the heavy macho culture of Survival Research Labs and steampunk. We’re moving from BarCamps to Tupperware parties.

Continuing with the theme of biomimetics: artificial technology is gradually merging with natural biology at both ends. Engineers borrow from nature to create new gadgets whilst biotechnologists seek to alter nature to meet human ends.

[from Wired UK][image from Lori Greig on flickr]

Biological cells as cloud computing networks

Tom James @ 13-08-2009

webIn an interesting confluence of ideas, and of the unintentional biomimicry at work in cloud computing, researchers identify parallels between biological cells and computer networks:

Gene regulatory networks in cell nuclei are similar to cloud computing networks, such as Google or Yahoo!, researchers report today in the online journal Molecular Systems Biology. The similarity is that each system keeps working despite the failure of individual components, whether they are master genes or computer processors.

“It’s extremely rare in nature that a cell would lose both a master gene and its backup, so for the most part cells are very robust machines,” said Anthony Gitter, a graduate student in Carnegie Mellon’s Computer Science Department and lead author of the Nature MSB article. “We now have reason to think of cells as robust computational devices, employing redundancy in the same way that enables large computing systems, such as Amazon, to keep operating despite the fact that servers routinely fail.”

It is fascinating how natural selection has already discovered many of the same processes used by human engineers.

[via Technut News, from ScienceDaily][image from Jus’ fi on flickr]

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