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Evolutionary Control

People now have the capability to control evolution, J. Craig Venter tells the WorldPost, but they don't yet have the "wisdom to do it or the knowledge to do it in a safe fashion."

He notes that it's been five years since his team at the J. Craig Venter Institute produced the first synthetic cell. This along with advances in genome editing show that humans can now direct evolution, according to Venter. But, he notes that he and other scientists have backed a moratorium on such human work until the all consequences of such tinkering have been worked out.

In a fruit fly, for instance, Venter says that a wing defect could be traced to a certain structural protein whose gene could be fixed. But, he adds, that gene could also direct other earlier developmental processes, and instead of fixing the wing defect, the whole fly could become deformed.

"If we assume we know what a gene that we're changing does, but it actually changes overall development or changes some other process we did not have proper understanding of, that's called 'experimentation,'" he says. "And that is a pretty dangerous thing to do with humans."

More complete knowledge is needed, he says, estimating that researchers only know the function of about 10 percent of the human genome. " We know a lot about a little bit; we know far less about a lot more. We don't know most of the real functions of most of the genes," he says. "A big percentage of that can potentially come in the next decade as we scale up to get huge numbers and use novel computing to gain a deeper understanding."