Evolution “IS” a Blind Watchmaker Video — A Short Course On Synthetic Genomics — Do Clouds Come From Outer Space? — Life: What A Concept!
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NEW On “A Short Course On Synthetic Genomics”
Physicist, Director, Origins Initiative, ASU; Author, Hiding In The Mirror
What struck me was the incredible power that is developing in bioinformatics and genomics, which so resembles the evolution in computer software and hardware over the past 30 years.
George Church’s discussion of the acceleration of the Moore’s law doubling time for genetic sequencing rates,, for example, was extraordinary, from 1.5 efoldings to close to 10 efoldings per year. When both George and Craig independently described their versions of the structure of the minimal genome appropriate for biological functioning and reproduction, I came away with the certainty that artificial lifeforms will be created within the next few years, and that they offered great hope for biologically induced solutions to physical problems, like potentially buildup of greenhouse gases.
At the same time, I came away feeling that the biological threats that come with this emerging knowledge and power are far greater than I had previously imagined, and this issue should be seriously addressed, to the extent it is possible. But ultimately I also came away with a more sober realization of the incredible complexity of the systems being manipulated, and how far we are from actually developing any sort of comprehensive understanding of the fundamental molecular basis of complex life. The simple animation demonstrated at the molecular level for Gene expression and replication demonstrated that the knowledge necessary to fully understand and reproduce biochemical activity in cells is daunting.
Two other comments: (1) was intrigued by the fact that the human genome has not been fully sequenced, in spite of the hype, and (2) was amazed at the available phase space for new discovery, especially in forms of microbial life on this planet, as demonstrated by Craig in his voyage around the world, skimming the surface, literally, of the ocean, and of course elsewhere in the universe, as alluded to by George.
Finally, I also began to think that structures on larger than molecular levels may be the key ones to understand for such things as memory, which make the possibilities for copying biological systems seem less like science fiction to me. George Church and I had an interesting discussion about this which piqued my interest, and I intend to follow this up.
THE NEW YORK TIMES — TIERNEY LAB
August 3, 2009, 8:00 AM
By JOHN MARKOFF
There is a growing consensus (at least in Silicon Valley) that the information age is about to give way to the era of synthetic genetics. That was underscored recently when Harvard geneticist George Church and J. Craig Venter — of the race to decode the human genome fame — gave lectures before a small group of scientists, technologists, entrepreneurs, and writers in West Hollywood.
The event, billed as “A Short Course on Synthetic Genetics”, was organized by John Brockman, the literary impresario (and book agent for several New York Times reporters, including this one) who publishes the cybersalon-style website www.edge.org, a forum dedicated to scientists (many of whom are his clients) and their ideas.
In roughly six hours of lectures both scientists tried to convey how the world will be changed by the ability to routinely read genetic sequences into computing systems and then store, replicate, alter and insert them back into living cells.
The rate at which this technology is now improving puts silicon to shame. Dr. Church noted that between 1970 and 2005 gene sequencing had taken place on a Moore’s Law pace, improving at about 1.5 times per year. Since then it has improved at the rate of an order of magnitude, or ten times annually.
In the process the cost of sequencing the human genome has plunged from $3 billion to $5 thousand and continues to fall. Dr. Church identified 17 companies and one “open source” project all pursuing different technologies to further push down cost and speed up the pace of sequencing.
As a consequence, the structure of the emerging synthetic genetics industry is beginning to mirror that of the semiconductor and computer industries, which are based on modular components and design tools.
The key to the vast growth of the computer industry took place during the 1970s when physicist Carver Mead helped give the industry a standard design approach based on modular components. Now that appears to be happening in the synthetic biology world as well.
For someone who has spent the past three decades writing about computing, Dr. Venter’s talk was eye-opening.
“I view DNA as an analog information system,” he said. ” and I hope to convince you in fact that it is absolutely the software of life.”
By Phil Berardelli
ScienceNOW Daily News
5 August 2009
Most of Earth’s clouds get their start in deep space. That’s the surprising conclusion from a team of researchers who argue that interstellar cosmic rays collide with water molecules in our atmosphere to form overcast skies.
As common as clouds are on Earth, the processes that produce them are not well understood. Scientists think particles of dust or pollen can serve as nuclei for water droplets, which in turn gather by the trillions into clouds. That would help explain how clouds form over urban areas: Fine particles called aerosols are emitted from the exhaust pipes of millions of vehicles and work their way into the atmosphere, where they are thought to attract water molecules. But it doesn’t explain how clouds formed in preindustrial society–or how they form today over vast stretches of rainforest and ocean.
That’s where cosmic rays come in. The idea goes like this: High-speed cosmic ray particles–protons and neutrons of still-mysterious origins that travel at nearly the speed of light–collide with water molecules in the atmosphere, stripping away electrons from those molecules and converting them into electrically charged ions. The ions then begin attracting other water molecules, which eventually form clouds.
The theory seems to hold water in the lab. In 2006, physicist Henrik Svensmark of the Technical University of Denmark in Copenhagen and colleagues produced aerosols artificially in an atmospheric chamber by bombarding water molecules with a particle beam. “More ions resulted in more aerosols,” Svensmark says.
In the new study, Svensmark’s team wanted to see if the idea also worked in the real world. The researchers focused on a phenomenon known as a Forbush decrease. Here, a massive storm on the sun’s surface flings a superhot fog of particles, called a coronal mass ejection, past Earth, temporarily shielding our planet from cosmic rays. If cosmic rays really do contribute to cloud formation, Svensmark and colleagues hypothesized, then cloud cover should dip during Forbush decreases.
And indeed that’s what Svensmark’s team found. When the researchers examined cloud data collected by weather satellites over the past 22 years and compared them with 26 Forbush decreases, they discovered that, for the five strongest events, the water-droplet content of Earth’s clouds decreased by an average of 7%. It’s like bare patches forming in a field, says Svensmark, whose team reports its findings this month in Geophysical Research Letters. The cloud patterns eventually returned to normal, he says, but they took weeks to do so. “We’re now convinced that aerosols are affected by the Forbush decrease,” Svensmark says.
Geoscientist Jón Egill Kristjánsson of the University of Oslo, Norway, calls the findings “astonishing.” He and other researchers have searched for years for relationships between Forbush decreases and cloud formation and have found nothing, or they have found significant relationships “only in very remote locations.” If the data can be confirmed by other observations, he says, “Svensmark’s new results would greatly strengthen the case for a cosmic ray-cloud connection.”
Svensmark argues that the findings suggest a link between cosmic rays and climate change. Because clouds bring rain and reflect light from the sun, fewer clouds would mean a warmer Earth. But Kristjánsson isn’t willing to go that far. Monitoring instruments “over the last 50 years or so show either no trend or a slightly upward trend” in cosmic rays hitting Earth, he notes. According to Svensmark’s theory, that would mean either no increase in cloud formation or a slight increase–neither of which would warm the world.
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— Wallace Stevens (“Men Made out of Words”)
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