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Colbert and Venter: Satire maven meets synth bio king

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on November 1st, 2007

Celebrity scientist-entrepreneur Craig Venter appeared this week on The Colbert Report to explain that his company is creating synthetic life to solve the energy crisis and save the world – and to plug his new autobiography, A Life Decoded: My Genome, My Life.

A few excerpts from the Venter-Colbert banter (roughly transcribed):

Colbert: You decoded your own genome, not somebody else’s…was there any marker there that proves that you’re some sort of narcissistic egomaniac?

Venter: I think that goes with the territory.

Colbert: What was the most surprising thing you learned?

Venter: We’re far more different from each other than we thought even a few years ago…We don’t all have the same genes, we have major differences. As an individualist, I find that very encouraging.

Colbert: You’re the largest private genomic lab in the world. You’re making patents of different genetic discoveries.

Venter: The only thing we’re patenting is what we’re doing with synthetic biology.

Colbert: Oh, you’re only patenting creating life, that’s all? Is the government controlling you at all or could you be creating a race of mutants who are going to take over eventually. Can you create heat with your gaze? (Laughter)….Tell people what you do.

Venter: We’re trying make a synthetic chromosome…now we can go from digital information to make DNA and lead to new life forms to come up with new energy sources.

Colbert: Are you going to be so rich that you’re gonna make Bill Gates look like Warren Buffet? If this takes off, if genetic engineering becomes a commercial thing, you’re the king, right? You’ll own everything, if you live long enough – which you will, because you’ll never die, because you’ll engineer your head onto a robo skeleton or something like that.

Hat tip to Gillian Madill, now Genetic Technologies Campaigner at Friends of the Earth, formerly top-notch intern at CGS.

Just like the Marines

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on November 1st, 2007

photo by Andrew Huff

A Chicago fertility clinic is advertising for egg "donors" with a take-off on the longstanding recruiting campaign by the U.S. Marine Corps. The ads have been spotted in the Chicago transit system's elevated trains.

Writing in Atrium, [pdf file] a report of the Northwestern Medical Humanities and Bioethics Program, Gretchen Case points out that the posters appropriate both the Marines' tag line and their imagery: young, attractive, ethnically diverse people standing in V formation. Case argues that there are indeed similarities between the young men often sent out in the first wave of a military offensive and the young women being recruited for their eggs:

Both military service and motherhood are often considered sacrosanct and crucial roles, but only particular kinds of bodies can perform these roles. The limited supply of appropriate bodies leads to a need for persuasion….If you join us, you become a hero.

Bad news on sex selection in new UN studies

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on November 1st, 2007

A series of new studies by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) documents the persistence and spread of skewed sex ratios and sex selection in Asia. According to a regional demographic analysis [pdf], the problem is not confined to India and China. In 2005, South Korea, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia also reported severe sex-ratio imbalances.

The report characterizes this situation, which began to emerge in its current dimensions during the late 1970s, as "a new demographic regime of gender discrimination" - one that has "never before been recorded in demographic history." If the sex ratio in Asia were the same as elsewhere in the world, it says, about 163 million more women would be alive there today.

According to the executive summary,

The ramifications of such an imbalance will not only continue for decades, but will affect an enormous proportion of the Asian population. While men of marriageable age will suddenly find a dramatic shortage of potential brides, it is girls and women of all ages who will truly feel the brunt of this dynamic [from] forecasted increases in gender-based violence, trafficking, discrimination and general vulnerability of women and girls.

Separate studies of Vietnam and Nepal [pdf files] conclude that sex ratios in those countries aren't troubling now, but that the availability of prenatal screening could change that soon.

The reports were prepared by UNFPA for this week's 4th Asia Pacific Conference on Reproductive and Sexual Health and Rights in Hyderabad, India. This year the biennial gathering brought together more than 1200 participants from NGOs, governments, funding agencies, the United Nations, and media.

UNFPA, which has recognized sex selection as a facet of violence against women since the 1995 World Conference on Women in Beijing, has produced a six-minute video on the subject titled Girls Gone Missing in Asia.

Corporate Genomics and Creepy GeneBook

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on October 25th, 2007

23andMe may be the most high-profile entrant into the much-anticipated potential market for personal genomics, but it's not the only one. David Ewing Duncan recently profiled it and its chief competitor, Navigenics in the business publication Portfolio. After reading this, David Hamilton at VentureBeat (and formerly of the Wall Street Journal), is skeptical of Navigenics:

If what the Portfolio piece depicts is even close to the truth, however, what these startups bring to market could be far more restricted - not to mention expensive - than most of us have probably imagined.

Let's put it this way: How would you feel about a company that offered to scan your genes, only to lock up most of the information it finds so it can charge you thousands of dollars a year to dribble it back out to you? I'm not sure the term "personal genomics" would even apply here - it sounds to me a lot more like "corporate genomics," in which getting access to your genome would require handing it over to a company that assumes it knows better than you do which parts of your genome you're entitled to see.

And he seems a bit disturbed by 23andMe's plans:

Of course, the idea of sharing your DNA with others via a new online social network - GeneBook? - might seem to many people every bit as creepy as the idea of corporate genomics seems to me.

Read all of Hamilton's piece, "Will 23andMe and Navigenics lock up your genome and charge you for the key?"

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