23 June 2010

Synthetic Biology: One Bright Doorway Into the Future


If you want self-replicating nano-assemblers, you do not need to look further than your own body and bodily excretions. Biology is the proof of concept of self-replicating nano-machines, and synthetic biology is rapidly becoming an rocketing ride into a future of diminishing limits.

Brian Wang presents an interview with synthetic biologist Andrew Hessel (featured in the video above). Excerpts:
Question: What is the main purpose of the singularity university?
Answer: I am the co-chair of bioninformatics and biotechnology at the Singularity University. Singularity has a very unique business model when it comes to education. We focus on training students in technologies that can go exponential. I emphasize to the students that the reading and writing of genetics code is an exponential technology in the same way for biogenetics that Moore's law is for computing. We are hitting the knee of the curve of that technology.
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Question: Craig Venter’s team recently created a new prokaryotic life form. How important is this accomplishment?
Answer: I believe Venter’s accomplishment will have profound ramifications. I see DNA as a programming language, and like any language there are three components - reading, writing, and comprehension. Craig has been at the forefront of reading and understanding DNA code, and today he is a leader in synthetic technologies. The creation of an artificial prokaryotic life form only scratches the surface of the greater potential of synthetic biology. The ability to easily engineer living organisms is perhaps the most powerful technology humans have made to date.
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Question: What will be the first mainstream application to be introduced that is dependent on synthetic biology?
Answer: That is the billion dollar question. If I had an answer to this question, I would be locked in a lab developing it. There are some clues, though. Historically, biotech has focused on treating illnesses, but the average consumer isn’t sick. This limits the marketplace. In health, people spend money on things that gives them tangible value in their everyday lives, at affordable prices. This means energy, building materials, household products, cosmetics, foods, pets, sensor and diagnostic technologies, and perhaps even smart drugs and intoxicants, like beer or wine. Whoever successfully brings biotechnology innovation to the masses will generate a fortune that rivals Google.

Question: When will the first human organs be created using synthetic biology?
Answer: Human organ cloning is actually more about stem cell engineering than synthetic biology per se. I predict rapid advancements in that area, due to rapid 3D printing technologies. The leader in that space is a company called Organovo, which has just announced the first commercial cell printer. Once we can print cell-based structures, we can produce everything from synthetic foods to organs. Given an aging population, it’s only a matter of time before fully functional cloned human organs become commercially available.

Question: How much progress can be expected in the field of synthetic biology by 2020?
Answer: This technology is in the knee of the s-curve and will grow exponentially for decades. By 2020 we will be able to engineer simple living systems routinely, whether it be a single protein, a metabolic pathway, or simple multicellular creatures. Eventually, testing and measurement of what we’re programming will become the limiting factor. Overall, the potential of synthetic biology is comparable to the potential of computers. We’re going to see it broadly applied in human endeavors. _NextBigFuture

A lot of resources are being shunted toward the several areas of science that intersect with synthetic biology. The potential is enormous, but the eventual outcome is anything but certain. With so many different transformative offshoots likely to spring up, it will be easy to overlook some incredibly profound possibilities lying within the technology.

Is there anything that biology cannot do over time and with assistance? We may soon find out.

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