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500 chemicals in your blood stream and only 50 percent are from human metabolism,” he said. “Thirty percent are from species you meet during a meal, and 10 percent are bacterial metabolites. We have no idea what role the latter play in human physiology…so many gene functions are unknown that empirical science is going to be a big part of this field for a long time to come.”
Some of the scientists had concerns about Venter’s ideas. What if you accidentally create a pathogen, one asked? “We’re designing everything to not survive outside the lab when it’s produced,” Venter replied.
But others were enthusiastic. “What will be the first application of synthetic biology on NASA’s missions?” another asked.
“How much money have you got?” Venter replied, laughing. “Without knowing the level of effort, it’s impossible to answer that, but we can change the shape of everything NASA does if there’s the commitment to do it.”
Ethics are a stumbling block, though, Venter acknowledged in response to another question on whether he would conduct certain experiments in space that he wouldn’t do on Earth. “Human engineering is one of those things we all agree that you can’t do, because you can’t do human experimentation. Making that leap from genetic selection to genetic engineering will be a very complex one for society to make – if it ever does. I don’t think doing it in space makes it any easier.”
In an interview after the meeting, NASA Ames director Pete Worden said NASA has no relationship with Venter, and isn’t planning one at this time. He said the purpose of the meeting—which was a combined meeting of NASA’s space settlement group and its synthetic biology group—was to get people together who don’t normally talk to each other to brainstorm and exchange ideas.
Scientists who think of new genetic experiments as a result of the meeting are free to submit proposals to NASA’s various directorates for approval, Worden said.