Weapons of Fast Destruction

Week in Review / by Lee Billings /

A nuclear summit winds down, an ambitious defense initiative ramps up, synthetic biology enters the limelight, the BP oil spill grows, and new pathogens emerge.

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In Brief:

The “synthetic cell” announced by Craig Venter and colleagues last week set off predictable rounds of bioethical hand-wringing, but also provoked stimulating discussions of whether or not Venter et al. are trying to corner the synthetic-genomics market with overly broad patent applications, and whether the new synthetic cell represents the future of synthetic biology or rather a $40-million techno-stunt. Public discussion culminated in yesterday’s congressional hearing about the implications of synthetic biology for health and energy, at which a panel of expert witnesses emphasized the importance of developing proper safety and security protocols for genetically engineered microbes. Perhaps to put to rest speculation that we are on the threshold of “playing God,” at the hearing Venter estimated that the (much more complicated) creation of a synthetic human cell lies decades, if not centuries, in the future.

In the Gulf of Mexico, a glimmer of hope emerged in the ongoing Deepwater Horizon disaster. BP’s “top kill” procedure, an effort to plug the leaking oil well with injections of drilling fluid and debris, showed limited success but still failed to entirely stanch the flow of oil. The beleaguered oil company may soon attempt another fix, the “junk shot.” As the top kill was under way, federal officials released an upward revision to volume estimates for the spill, saying that it was two to five times greater in size than previously believed. If accurate, these estimates will establish the Deepwater Horizon leak as the largest oil spill in US history, by far eclipsing the previous record-holder, the 1989 spill from the Exxon Valdez. In a news conference at the White House yesterday, President Obama was on the defensive over his administration’s handling of the crisis, and unveiled a host of new measures to quell offshore oil drilling, including the deferral of oil exploration projects off the Alaskan coast. As to whether the Gulf spill will galvanize the President to push as hard for climate change and energy legislation like he did for healthcare, the outlook still looks gloomy.

Scientists foretold catastrophe as new, highly virulent strains of a fungus causing wheat stem rust were discovered in South Africa. Carried by winds or reckless commerce, the new strains could spread from Africa throughout much of the world, leaving devastated crops and starvation in their wake. To prevent widespread famine from harvest failures, up to 90 percent of wheat varieties worldwide may need to be replaced with more resistant forms created through selective breeding or genetic modification.

And finally, Mark Gasson, a British researcher who last year inserted a small radio-frequency identification chip in his hand, has now deliberately infected the implant with a computer virus. Gasson says the virus can propagate remotely from his chip into external systems. Which makes it reasonable to speculate that, while Gasson may be the first human to be infected with a computer virus, he probably won’t be the last.

Lee Billings is a staff editor for Seed. He likes space.

Originally published May 28, 2010

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