From The New York Times today, the end of “A Romp…,” by Dennis Overbye:
Some scientists say we won’t really understand life until we can make it ourselves.
On the last day of the conference, J. Craig Venter, the genome decoding entrepreneur and president of the J. Craig Venter Institute, described his adventures trying to create an organism with a computer for a parent.
Using mail-order snippets of DNA, Dr. Venter and his colleagues stitched together the million-letter genetic code of a bacterium of a goat parasite last year and inserted it into another bacterium’s cell, where it took over, churning out blue-stained copies of itself. Dr. Venter advertised his genome as the wave of future migration to the stars. Send a kit of chemicals and a digitized genome across space.
“We’ll create panspermia if it didn’t already exist,” he said.
The new genome included what Dr. Venter called a watermark. Along with the names of the researchers were three quotations, from the author James Joyce; Robert Oppenheimer, who directed the building of the atomic bomb; and the Caltech physicist Richard Feynman: “What I cannot build, I do not understand.”
When the news came out, last year, Dr. Venter said, the James Joyce estate called up and threatened to sue, claiming that Joyce’s copyright had been violated. To date there has been no lawsuit.
Then Caltech called up and complained that Dr. Venter’s genome was misquoting Feynman. The institute sent a photograph of an old blackboard on which Feynman had written, “What I cannot create, I do not understand.”
And so his genome is now in the process of acquiring its first, non-Darwinian mutation.