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Sequencing the Planet
Alex Steffen, 17 Aug 04

Craig Venter, the maybe-sorta-cool-n'-maverick, pro'ly-kinda-creepy-and-corporate biologist is spending a big wad of cash to cruise around the oceans, sequencing the biosphere:

"Leaving colleagues and rivals to comb through the finished human code in search of individual genes, he has decided to sequence the genome of Mother Earth.

"What we think of as life on this planet is only the surface layer of a vast undiscovered world. The great majority of Earth's species are bacteria and other microorganisms. They form the bottom of the food chain and orchestrate the cycling of carbon, nitrogen, and other nutrients through the ecosystem. They are the dark matter of life. They may also hold the key to generating a near-infinite amount of energy, developing powerful pharmaceuticals, and cleaning up the ecological messes our species has made. But we don't really know what they can do, because we don't even know what they are.

"Venter wants to change that. He's circling the globe in his luxury yacht the Sorcerer II on an expedition that updates the great scientific voyages of the 18th and 19th centuries, notably Charles Darwin's journey aboard HMS Beagle. But instead of bagging his finds in bottles and gunnysacks, Venter is capturing their DNA on filter paper and shipping it to be sequenced and analyzed at his headquarters in Rockville, Maryland. The hope is to uncover tens or even hundreds of millions of new genes, an immense bolus of information on Earth's biodiversity. In the process, he's having a hell of a good time and getting a very good tan."

We're big fans of sequencing the planet. That's not the problem -- indeed it is a very big problem that it hasn't been done already. Planetary biodiversity inventories are an essential tool in protecting the biological diversity and ecosystem health of the planet.

No, the problem is: to whose benefit is this work being done? Genetic rights are big business these days. Venter -- perhaps the most mistrusted man in biology -- claims to be doing this all for the public benefit:

"the unprecedented scale of this genetic dredging project - We're going to sequence everything we find! - would raise a few red flags even if its leader were not J. Craig Venter. And the obstacles are higher since many people are still certain that "Darth Venter" tried to privatize the human genome" [for damn good reason, most biologists say] "allowing access to the code only to the deep pockets who could afford it.

"This time around, he's doing everything he can to convince the world that he has no commercial motive: Here, take it all, I ask for nothing in return. His generosity has actually exacerbated his political problems. By the nature of its research, the Sorcerer II expedition falls under the jurisdiction of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, which has established guidelines for "benefit sharing" of resources. In return for access to their waters, in other words, governments expect a piece of the action. But if - like Venter - you are giving everything away, you don't have any benefits to share. "The irony is just too great," he says. "I'm getting attacked for putting data in the public domain."

Thus far, Venter seems to be for real. On the Sorcerer II Expedition website explicit promises are being made that "these data will be made publicly and freely available to all," and "no patents or other intellectual property rights will be sought ...on these genomic sequence[s]." And the corporation running the expedition is a 501[c]3 nonprofit, making it more difficult to renege on these sorts of promises.

But why not take prophylactic patent measures? Legal folks insist that open source biotechnology is possible, and certainly someone with Venter's pockets could fund the legal groundwork to create a genetic Creative Commons licencing system? Why not go the whole biscuit and help democratize biotech?

Sequencing the planet is definitely a worldchanging endeavor. Whether Venter's doing it in a worldchanging way is open to debate.

What do you think?

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Comments

Fingers crossed... but bear in mind that this is the guy who secretly arranged to sequence his own DNA, instead of that of a carefully-selected pool of donors -- much to the chagrin of Celera's own science board and his colleagues.

Mind you, philanthropism has always been one of the good traits of egomania ;)


Posted by: Justin Mason on 17 Aug 04



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