In the future, the energy needs of the world, remediation of pollution and disposal of certain wastes could all be handled by biological organisms designed in the lab, a prominent lecturer said Thursday night.
J. Craig Venter, the CEO of the J. Craig Venter Institute and one of the driving forces behind the mapping of the human genome, spoke to an audience at Woodruff Auditorium as part of Kansas University's 10th annual Takeru Higuchi Memorial Lecture. Since mapping the human genome, Venter's work has shifted to examining other genes and how the synthesizing of genes in the lab may change the course of humanity.
"We have minor goals like replacing the petrochemical industry and becoming a major source of energy," he deadpanned.
All this would be made possible because of a system that Venter has researched that involves creating bacteria with defined characteristics, such as consuming carbon dioxide and outputting methane gas - or any other combination of input and output.
These creations can be made to kill themselves in certain inopportune or unsafe environments - such as outside a lab or after 50 replication cycles - Venter said.
"Let your imaginations run wild with the possibilities of this technology," he said. "I like to think of this field as the equivalent of the electronics field in the 1940s and '50s. We're working on some pretty cool software that allows us to design some unique species based on specific principles."
After the speech, the audience was invited to ask questions. Kim Richter, associate professor of medicine at KU, asked whether this sort of technology had the potential to change, reduce or increase the economic disparities in the world.
"The sky is the limit in terms of what can be created through these tools," she said after the speech. "Historically, economic power has been based on the availability of resources. This could mean instead of resources, knowledge and intellectual property would lead to power."
Neither Venter nor Richter, though, really knew whether this would truly reduce the gap between rich and poor or whether it would widen it.