Genetic Typo

By David M. Ewalt
Forbes.com

In May 2010, geneticist J. Craig Venter and his team made news by creating the first “synthetic life form,” replacing the genetic code in a bacterium with DNA they’d composed on a computer.

But during a presentation delivered Monday morning at the South By Southwest convention in Austin, Texas, Venter talked about two ways the landmark innovation went wrong.

In order to distinguish their synthetic DNA from that naturally present in the bacterium, Venter’s team coded several famous quotes into their DNA, including one from James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist of a Young Man: “To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life.”

After announcing their work, Venter explained, his team received a cease and desist letter from Joyce’s estate, saying that he’d used the Irish writer’s work without permission. ”We thought it fell under fair use,” said Venter.

The synthetic DNA also included a quote from physicist Richard Feynman, “What I cannot build, I cannot understand.”

That prompted a note from Caltech, the school where Feyman taught for decades. They sent Venter a photo of the blackboard on which Feynman composed the quote –and it showed that he actually wrote, “What I cannot create, I do not understand.”

“We agreed what was on the Internet was wrong,” said Venter. “So we’re going back to change the genetic code to correct it.”

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