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Synthetic biology: improved medicine, biofuels, ‘growing’ houses
Dick Pelletier   May 28, 2013   Ethical Technology  

Say goodbye to global warming, toxic waste, and dependency on fossil fuels, and get ready to enjoy better health with novel drugs that could one day cure most diseases and extend lifespan indefinitely.

    In addition, as crazy as this may sound, scientists are learning to modify seed genomes so that they will 'grow' directly into bio-buildings. Synthetic biology is about taking control of the natural world at the DNA level in order to accomplish previously impossible things. NASA is considering using this technology to 'grow' habitats on alien planets prior to human arrival – think 'terraforming' Star Trek-style.

    Programming a seed to grow directly into a wooden building may appear ludicrous. However, given that a seed can grow one kind of wooden structure (a tree) using no more than dirt and sunlight, altering its code so that using similar raw materials, it can grow into another form is within reason, scientists believe.

    These are just some of the possibilities researchers envision as they attempt to copy how nature gathers non-living matter and transforms it into life. This 5-min video explains the technology.

    Life is generally not thought of as being mechanical, but in its basic definition, a cell is a miniature machine that rearranges non-living atoms to create parts that bring those atoms to life.

    In 2010, biologist entrepreneur Craig Venter and his team created the world's first synthetic life form; a cell programmed with artificial computer-generated DNA that promises an incredible array of benefits for the world. Venter believes we're at the dawn of an era where new life can be created to benefit humanity, starting with bacteria that churn out biofuels, soak up carbon dioxide from the air and make vaccines.

    Venter's progress and the state of the industry can be found in this fascinating half-hour video.

    Other benefits could include designing new strains of bacteria that consume cholesterol and other dangerous substances in our bodies. We could even create protective bacteria that would seek out, attack, and destroy dangerous microbes that cause so much human misery and death.

    Though most people believe this technology will provide unlimited commercial and medical benefits, others worry about possible runaway dangers, along with ethical and moral issues of human-made life.

    Alarmed by this new technology, President Obama asked his bioethics commission to investigate. The report saw no need to halt synthetic biology research, nor impose new regulations on the fledgling field. This was great news to synthetic biologists who can now focus on furthering the technology.

    Naysayers are concerned though; they say this technology could lead to unpredictable dangers.

    Could artificial lifeforms ever run amok and destroy our world? “When these things are created, they are so weak, we're lucky if they remain alive for an hour in the lab,” says Mark Bedau, COO of ProtoLife in Venice, Italy. Breaking out and taking over the world – never in our wildest imagination could this happen.

    However, conservatives see still another issue to be resolved. Synthetic biology challenges our most cherished notions of the meaning of life. Is life sacred, or has it been reduced to a formula in a computer.

    In another research project, Harvard Nobel Laureate Jack Szostak predicts his team will produce a complete cellular system by 2015. Once this happens, Szostak says, Darwinian evolution will take over, revealing a more precise picture of how modern cells rose from their simpler ancestors.

    This knowledge will help scientists understand how humans evolved in the past, and provide guidance towards a future human evolution driven, not by nature, but by tomorrow's synthetic biology.

    We will see tiny self-reproducing factories, disease-killing machines, and exotic creations performing many useful functions. Experts believe that by 2020, synthetic life creations could eliminate, or make manageable, nearly all human sicknesses, including most of today's dreaded age-related diseases.

    Positive futurists believe that by 2030 or before, synthetic biology could provide everyone an affordable, ageless, forever healthy body fashioned from newly-created 'designer genes.' Welcome to the future.

Dick Pelletier was a weekly columnist who wrote about future science and technologies for numerous publications. He passed away on July 22, 2014.



COMMENTS

It’s a strange, and false, dichotomy that life must either be a miraculous thing worthy of reverence or a mechanical system ultimately within our power to control.  Nowhere is it written that it cannot be both.

Synthetic biology can lead to greater biodiversity, greater understanding of natural processes, even greater integration of human society and economies with natural ecosystems.  Rather then reducing life in our eyes to merely a machine, bio-buildings like the one described in the video could reconnect us with the natural world and remind us of our place as one species within a global biosphere.

Interesting comment, Matt.

I interpret life as reduced to a formula, but this conclusion can be positive. Because life is reduced to a mathematical formula, scientists face a magnificent challenge to improve on that formula.

Today’s intelligent Earth life is riddled with flaws. Crime, wars, and evil-doers run rampant forcing humanity to face its fears; then, if we add the fact that life ends with poor health followed by death, one could wonder how intelligent a species we really are.

I wonder what an alien life form, with a million years or so more experience than us would think if they observed our lifestyle.

However, as a positive futurist, I have to believe that as the coming decades and centuries unfold, humans will make the necessary changes to advance. Am I correct? Time will tell.

Not sure what you mean about life reduced to a formula.  I’ve heard it joked that biology is simply applied chemistry, which is simply applied physics and so on.  While that is true to a point, I’m a firm believer that the emergent properties inherent in the increasing complexity of an organism, let alone an ecosystem, make it difficult to reduce these phenomena to mathematical equations.

I certainly don’t deny that human biology is less than optimal for our current society and I get out into nature enough to know that it is far from the idyllic Eden many environmentalists picture it to be.  As I hope my post made apparent, I hold a great deal of hope in the potential of biotechnology.  A building grown out of a seed, connected into the nutrient and life cycles of the ecosystem it’s in, is far preferable in my opinion to towers of steel and glass.

I wonder if we would eventually be able to “grow” vehicles such as cars, planes, or even spaceships.  That would be awesome and would certainly make things easier.

Kurzweil defines human DNA as out-of-date software badly in need of re-writing.

I agree with this evaluation and can envision the time when nanorobots, programmed with tomorrow’s advanced artificial intelligence will cruise through our veins replacing faulty DNA with a formula more correct for our indefinite lifespan.

By mid-century, humanity could develop non-biological neurons (carbon nanotubes?) to replace our mushy slow-thinking brain with a super intelligent apparatus that comprehends data billions of times faster than today’s minds. Given this advanced thinking ability, events that we might consider ‘miracles’, could happen routinely.

Christian, we can already ‘grow’ most components of large objects with 3-D printing, and with molecular nanotech looming on the horizon (maybe by late 2020s); just about anything will be possible.

Comments welcome.

If DNA is so out of date, why are we considering basing future computers on DNA?  If anything a good our technology seems to be moving towards mimicking biology that all out replacing it.  This article even supports that.  In fact I just came across this article about an “artificial leaf” that could power our civilization (http://news.yahoo.com/chemist-hopes-artificial-leaf-power-civilization-using-photosynthesis-173654018—abc-news-tech.html) .  If you and Kurzweil weren’t so biased towards machines, would have a greater appreciation for biology and what its has and can achieve (which is a whole lot).  Its almost ironic that you identify as a “positive futurist” because you seem rather negative when it comes to biology.

I should also add that constructing an object with 3-d printing is not exactly the same thing as “growing” an object.

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