04 June 2007

Artificial Cells, Synthetic Biology, Revolutionary Life Forms

Living cells are able to thrive miles below the earth and the sea, and can survive transit through the vacuum of space. While we are waiting for nanotechnology to come of age, some revolutionary biologists are learning to design novel life forms almost from scratch--life designed for specific human purposes.
The people who are defying Nature's monopoly on creation are a loose collection of engineers, computer scientists, physicists and chemists who look at life quite differently than traditional biologists do. Harvard professor George Church wants "to do for biology what Intel does for electronics"—namely, making biological parts that can be assembled into organisms, which in turn can perform any imaginable biological activity. Jay Keasling at UC Berkeley received $42 million from Bill Gates to create living microfactories that manufacture a powerful antimalaria agent. And then there's Craig Venter, the legendary biotech entrepreneur who made his name by decoding the human genome for a tenth of the predicted cost and in a tenth of the predicted time. Venter has put tens of millions of dollars of his own money into Synthetic Genomics, a start-up, to make artificial organisms that convert sunlight into biofuel, with minimal environmental impact and zero net release of greenhouse gases. These organisms, he says, will "replace the petrochemical industry, most food, clean energy and bioremediation."

Many of the things that Drexler, Merkel, and Freitas expect out of future nanotechnology can be accomplished in the nearer term by specially designed life-forms. Biology has an evolutionary head start of billions of years over nanotech. While Crick and Watson made their earthshaking discoveries in the mid-20th century, equivalent foundational discoveries for workable molecular assembly nanotech have yet to be made.

It is certainly true that a mastery of biology possessed by malevolent individuals could endanger all life on earth, it is more likely that such a mastery would be used to move industrial and chemical processes to cleaner and more sustainable forms.

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Blogger Michael Anissimov said...

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Monday, 04 June, 2007  
Blogger Michael Anissimov said...

99.999% of individuals will use synthetic life for good, economically productive activity. 0.0001% of people will be looking to prove something and will create a virus-like organism that kills millions if not billions. The human organism is far more fragile than one might guess. We can only survive when a certain long series of specific chemical reactions is going on in our body. Have something that can consistently disrupt one of these reactions, self-replicate from human blood, and go airborne, and you have a real apocalyptic scenario on your hands. Only the most isolated people (think Antarctica) would survive.

The only way I can see of steering around the long-term risk is through a superintelligent singleton.

Monday, 04 June, 2007  

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