Keith Kendrick: We may need to create new life forms to survive

From a lecture by the Gresham Professor of Physic given at Gresham College in London
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The Independent Online

When one asks what potential human discovery will be likely to have the greatest impact on life on this planet during the current century there are probably many things that might spring to mind.

When one asks what potential human discovery will be likely to have the greatest impact on life on this planet during the current century there are probably many things that might spring to mind.

These could, for example, be to do with helping to save our very existence through control of pollution, use of weapons and our predisposition to warfare. They could be improving our ability to control or even eradicate current life-threatening diseases, being able to prolong our useful lives or develop more intelligent computers and machines to help us in our everyday lives. Perhaps we might even start to visit and colonise other planets.

However, arguably the most challenging discoveries will be those that could allow us to design and create new life-forms for our own purposes.

One almost inevitable consequence of progressive human population expansion and requirement for increasing areas of our planet for use by our species must be a further increase in the extinction rate of other species of life. If we fail to control our generation of toxic pollutants the process will be further accelerated.

So what has this to do with major discoveries in the 21st century, you may ask? The simple answer to this is that we will almost certainly have the ability not only to modify the genomes of existing species to help them try to adapt to whatever environment we can afford to give them, we may actually also be able to create entirely new species that are deliberately engineered to help us and survive on a humanised planet.

Of course there are some scientists who question seriously whether the human race will survive as a dominant force on the planet for longer than the current century, and there is always the chance than an environmental catastrophe might occur.

However, let us assume for the time being that these two outcomes are simply a possibility and that we must consider most seriously what might happen if things continue more or less as they are and humans continue to dominate the planet's resources.

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