Rudy Rucker has been ruminating on synthetic biology in the wake of a September essay in The New Yorker entitled “A Life Of Its Own”, which is well worth the half hour or so it’ll take to read. [image by ynse]
In response, Rucker has reposted a piece he wrote for Newsweek on the same subject back in 2007… and if you love Rucker’s ability to flip-flop from hard science to way-out West-Coast weirdness within the space of a few paragraphs (as I do), it’s a must-read. For example, here are Rucker’s thoughts about the biotech “grey goo”scenario:
What’s to stop a particularly virulent synthetic organism from eating everything on earth? My guess is that this could never happen. Every existing plant, animal, fungus and protozoan already aspires to world domination. There’s nothing more ruthless than viruses and bacteria—and they’ve been practicing for a very long time.
The fact that the synthetic organisms are likely to have simplified Tinkertoy DNA doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to be faster and better. It’s more likely that they’ll be dumber and less adaptable. I have a mental image of germ-size MIT nerds putting on gangsta clothes and venturing into alleys to try some rough stuff. And then they meet up with the homies who’ve been keeping it real for a billion years or so.
And if that’s a bit too serious for you, hands up who’d love to live in this future:
Of course, people will want to start tweaking their own bodies. Initially we’ll go for enhanced health, strength and mental stability, perhaps accelerating the pace of evolution in a benign way.
But, feckless creatures that we are, we may cast caution to the winds. Why would starlets settle for breast implants when they can grow supplementary mammaries? Hipsters will install living tattoo colonies of algae under their skin. Punk rockers can get a shocking dog-collar effect by grafting on a spiky necklace of extra fingers with colored nails. Or what about giving one of your fingers a treelike architecture? Work ten two-way branchings into each tapering fingerlet of this special finger, and you’ll have a thousand or so fingertips, with the fine touch of a sea anemone.
Ah… just me, then? 🙂
Sven Johnson reports back from the Future Imperfect once again. This time the IP boot is on the other foot, as a keen gamer casts a copyrighted GM crop in an extremely unfavourable light…
I suppose I don’t need to ask how many of you have succumbed to the latest “farm game” revival craze. If you’re reading this column you’re almost certainly playing Genetic Seed, the latest in a seemingly never-ending stream of post-aquapocalyptic, real-time strategy MMOs; this one the obvious offspring of such classics as Food Risk and Germplasm II. However, if you’ve somehow remained oblivious and don’t want to google for an explanation, think of it as the cross-pollinated spawn of a scorched-earth Spore and one of those open source gene-splicing applications… only instead of critters, you play God with the plant life. The better your clan’s food, the stronger its fighters, the bouncier the babes, and so on. Continue reading The Gaming Fields: crops, copyright and DIY genetic engineering
Genetically engineered bacteria have been used to deliver therapies for bowel disorders like inflammatory bowel disease:
The bacterium is able to deliver the protein, a human growth factor called KGF-2, directly to the damaged cells that line the gut, unlike other treatments which can cause unwanted side effects. Also unlike other treatments, it is envisaged that patients will be able to control the medication themselves by ingesting xylan, perhaps in the form of a drink.
I am not 1 of the 400 Britons who suffers from IBD but it is wonderful to see that genetic engineering has such excellent medical applications.
[from Science Daily][image from Deco Fernandez on flickr]
Wired does an excellent job of focusing on a day-to-day aspect of an imminently transformative technology. Much is spoken of the coming biotech revolution, but industrial designers like Tuur Van Balen focus on the how biotechnology will present itself at the most basic level:
The 1s and 0s of software live in shiny metals shielded by colourful plastics; biological data lurks in dampness, in pipettes and test tubes. Hacking is about the culture of garages and workshops; DIY bio lives somewhere between the kitchen and the garden. You need mixing bowls and hygiene, beakers and taps. Every article about DIY bio seems to mention a salad-spinner. This isn’t the heavy macho culture of Survival Research Labs and steampunk. We’re moving from BarCamps to Tupperware parties.
Continuing with the theme of biomimetics: artificial technology is gradually merging with natural biology at both ends. Engineers borrow from nature to create new gadgets whilst biotechnologists seek to alter nature to meet human ends.
[from Wired UK][image from Lori Greig on flickr]
In an interesting confluence of ideas, and of the unintentional biomimicry at work in cloud computing, researchers identify parallels between biological cells and computer networks:
Gene regulatory networks in cell nuclei are similar to cloud computing networks, such as Google or Yahoo!, researchers report today in the online journal Molecular Systems Biology. The similarity is that each system keeps working despite the failure of individual components, whether they are master genes or computer processors, which paves a way to the next gen secure web gateway
“It’s extremely rare in nature that a cell would lose both a master gene and its backup, so for the most part cells are very robust machines,” said Anthony Gitter, a graduate student in Carnegie Mellon’s Computer Science Department and lead author of the Nature MSB article. “We now have reason to think of cells as robust computational devices, employing redundancy in the same way that enables large computing systems, such as Amazon, to keep operating despite the fact that servers routinely fail.”
It is fascinating how natural selection has already discovered many of the same processes used by human engineers.
[via Technut News, from ScienceDaily][image from Jus’ fi on flickr]