The J Curve

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Clones and Mutants

“Life is the imperfect transmission of code.” At our life sciences conference in Half Moon Bay, Juan Enriquez shared some his adventures around the biosphere, from an Argentinean clone farm to shotgun sequencing the Sargasso Sea with Craig Venter. From the first five ocean samples, they grew the number of known genes on the planet by 10x and the number of genes involved in solar energy conversion by 100x. The ocean microbes have evolved over a longer period of time and have pathways that are more efficient than photosynthesis.

Clone Farms
Juan showed a series of photos from his October trip to a farm in Argentina. With simple equipment that fits on a desk, the farmer cloned and implanted 60 embryos that morning. All of the cows in his field came from a cell sample from the ear of one cow.

Some of the cows are genetically modified to produce pharmaceutical proteins in their milk (human EPO). These animal bioreactors are very efficient and could replace large buildings of traditional manufacturing capacity.

Whether stem cell research and treatment for ALS, or cloning cows, Argentina is one of the countries boldly going where the U.S. Federal government fears to tread.

Three Wing Chickens
Juan also showed a genetically engineered three wing chicken. The homeobox gene that has been modified is affectionately called “Sonic Hedgehog” (his son really likes SEGA!)

The homeobox genes are my favorites. They are like powerful subroutine calls that have structural phenotypic effects.

I recommend Juan’s book As the Future Catches You for an exploration of the economic imperative of technology education, especially literacy in the modern languages of digital code and genetic code. And for a populist description of the homeobox genes, I recommend Matt Ridley’s Genome, a very fun primer on genetics. Here is a selection:

Hedgehog has its equivalents in people and in birds. Three very similar genes do much the same thing in chicks and people… The hedgehog genes define the front and rear of the wing, and it is Hox genes that then divide it up into digits. The transformation of a simple limb bud into a five-fingered hand happens in every one of us, but it also happened, on a different timescale, when the first tetrapods developed hands from fish fins some time after 400 million years ago.”

"So simple is embryonic development that it is tempting to wonder if human engineers should not try to copy it, and invent self-assembling machines.”

One of Juan’s slides was the first hand drawn map of the Internet, circa 1969. Larry Roberts had drawn that map, and happened to be in the audience to brainstorm after the talk.

P.S. The most popular phone at our conference was the Moto Razor, Chinese edition.

P.S.S. The most popular blog photo so far (with over 12,000 visitors) is a simple message…


  • Here is another, more humanitarian example.

    Red leaves on the ground marks the spot of a land mine.

    In Autumn, the plant's normal reaction is to turn red or brown when subjected to stressful conditions such as cold or drought. This weed has been genetically modified to change colors only in the presence of nitrogen-dioxide, a marker for landmines or other unexploded ordinance. The plant is also made to be sterile. The application would be to release the seeds from a crop duster over a former battleground area, and let the plants grow, marking the threats. Initial tests will be in Bosnia, Sri Lanka and Sub-Saharan Africa.

    The hope is that this will be more effective than the dogs and metal detectors used today.

    “Experts believe that there are more than 1 billion unexploded landmines in over 75 countries worldwide, and it is estimated that a landmine kills or injures someone every 20 minutes, usually children or teenagers.” (source)

    By Blogger Steve Jurvetson, at 9:43 AM  

  • It may in some quarters be considered de rigeur to produce cloned bovines. However, surely they have overlooked a potential trap door in their otherwise serene agricultural landscape. If all the animals genes are identical (or near identical, give or take the odd mistake) surely this makes them fair game for microbial or viral assault. A potential virus only has to discover some weakness specific to this set of genes and a catastrophic epidemic could result. Normally there is sufficient genetic variability to avoid such catastrophies.

    By Blogger Bob Mottram, at 12:16 PM  

  • Thanks Bob. I agree on systemic risk of monocultures. This is from an earlier post:
    “Microsoft is a global monoculture and is therefore subject to catastrophic collapse. The resiliency of critical computer networks might suffer if they migrate to a common architecture. Like a monoculture of corn, they can be more efficient, but the vulnerability to pathogens is more polarized - especially in a globally networked world.”

    By Blogger Steve Jurvetson, at 12:30 PM  

  • LOL LOVE the photo!
    And why not? Most of us don't die broke!
    Talk about robbing from the dead!
    Thanks for the laugh...

    By Anonymous Amy, at 11:29 AM  

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