Biotechnology

Space-Faring Fungus Hats and Synthetic Biology

 

If you share my view that technology drives history more than any other factor, then you will probably agree that the 21st century is going to be significantly shaped by the outcome of a single question: Will synthetic biology achieve radical success or not?

 

Synthetic biology is the current term for the outer reaches of ambition in biotechnology. More often than not, the notion includes making artificial biology more like digital computation. It could hardly be otherwise, for computers are central to most of the prior art we have for building highly complicated structures from scratch. Computers also symbolize the ultimate in freedom through technology. You can hypothetically program a computer to do virtually anything with its input and output devices.

 

If we could only find the right computer program to operate robotic medical devices, for instance, we could create a robot surgeon to cure any disease.

 

If we could do the same with DNA and the other chemicals of life, we could create a huge variety of novel creatures or transform ourselves into astonishing new forms.

 

But if we entertain the idea that biotechnology is going to become more like computation, we aren’t being very specific, because there is more than one kind of computation. In particular, it might be more revealing to ask if synthetic biology is more likely to turn out like digital hardware or software. That’s an excellent candidate to be the most important question of the century.

 

From a mathematician’s point of view, hardware and software are practically interchangeable. You can almost always emulate a chip in software or implement a program as a chip. In practice, though, the two things could hardly be more different. Chips get faster and cheaper at a predictable, accelerating rate that is so reliable it is known as a law—the famous Moore’s law. Software typically gets worse over time.

 

If synthetic biology turns out to improve in the accelerating way that computer hardware does, we will be in for quite a ride. It’s hard to predict how weird things could get, so one is tempted to max out deliriously as a futurist.

 

If synthetic biology instead turns out to be more like software, it will still be amazing but in a more incremental, less predictable way. We will witness a succession of plateaus of achievement in areas like medicine and bioenergy. After a decade or two, we might have engineered bacteria that make fuel out of old garbage dumps, or maybe even a substantially artificial cell that acts like a doctor, swimming through the body and fixing our own aging human cells.

 

The key to understanding complicated things like synthetic biology is being able to break them into simpler things. Let’s call this modularity. Going back to the difference between hardware and software: The problem a chip designer has to solve is modularized completely within a tight conceptual box. The logic design of a chip is perfectly specified, and the parameters of the physical environment in which it will operate, such as the temperature, can be carefully constrained.

 

Software, in contrast, makes contact with the wild world outside the limits of comfortable abstractions. Even when you think you’ve considered every condition that a piece of software will encounter, the rebellious nature of reality (including the foibles of human users) will come up with something to violate your assumptions. E-mail programs were originally written without foreseeing that some people would want to write viruses to pierce them.

Kemo D. (a.k.a. no.7) www.beyondgenes.com

 

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