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Of Synthetic Cells and Digital Media


synthetic and natural cells look identical

A "synthetic" and "natural" cell, said to look identical

Thanks to J. Craig Venter’s just-announced “synthetic” cell, there now exists “the first self-replicating species we’ve had on the planet whose parent is a computer.” His team managed to synthesize a length of DNA consisting of a million units and plant it into a bacterial cell, taking over the cell’s functions via what is referred to as a new “software,” i.e. a new genome created digitally.

The implications are extraordinary for creating new life forms, some of them potentially catastrophic and some perhaps highly beneficial. It is an experiment that questions life, God, our futures, and the meaning and existence of Nature. The synthetic cell was created by a computer, a machine, to create the code for a new life form and many others to follow - a composite of the digital and of DNA, two code-based architectures, the latter thought to be “natural.” It makes most of the science fiction cyborgs seem almost sweet.

In the After Photography book I argued that it is no accident that we created a code-based digital media once we began to define ourselves, since Watson and Crick’s discovery, as code-based through our DNA. Can we (must we?) use digital media to explore what Venter’s experiments might mean for us in ways that previous media are not capable of doing? Can we use a new digital photography to explore the datascape of the genotype, just as we once used analog photography to explore the phenotype?

We are in desperate need of figuring out what all this might mean, in distinguishing (if still possible) between the natural and the synthetic, in charting out ethical and sensible courses of action, and my very strong sense is that we invented digital media to help us to deal with just this situation.


  1. Tyler Cheung wrote:

    I think what you are talking about is the quantification of information - pictures/images, genetic base pair data, etc. This is described elegantly in Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver’s writings in Bell Labs in the 1950’s (”The Mathematical Theory of Communication”) although the concept of information theory has been used extensively in physics for many years.

    You are staking claim the observation and analysis of data for photography! how exciting. The field as applied to base pairs/genomic data (bioinformatics/systems biology/computational biology) is huge and dominated by large pharmaceuticals, and some universities. The “lenses” and “cameras” are sophistacated statistical constructs and datamining algorithms trying to figure out what is useful data coding protein structure and what is just junk DNA. We are far from obtaining a higher order understanding of how all of the different proteins interact with each other in the “big picture sense”…perhaps the computational folks can provide the tools that make such abstraction and pattern recognition possible on a scale appropriate to the human “photographer”…

    Friday, June 25, 2010 at 3:09 pm | Permalink
  2. Tyler Cheung wrote:

    Of note…also - the synthetic bacteria is one thing…but disturbingly enough, we have gotten extremely good at making synthetic viruses for applications ranging from insertion of new genes in vivo (humans and animals…) for both therapy (”gene therapy”) and research (”disease modeling”).

    Furthermore, we have been modifying bacteria with “synthetic” plasmids and “designed” DNA for a long time - at least 15-20 years if not more. The only new concept from Venter et al is the entire bacteria is “synthetic” or human designed base-pairs, likely using more up to date and efficient machinery for those purposes. But, we have been modifying E. coli for our purposes for a long time…

    Friday, June 25, 2010 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

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