Matrix, Dolly the Sheep and bacteria of the future
One field which has drawn my attention for quite a while now is synthetic biology. To this day I remember newspaper headlines a dozen plus years ago announcing the successful cloning of Dolly the Sheep. Those euphoric and promising statements intertwined with pure hysteria: “We have crossed a red line. We are well on our way to cloning humans!”, claimed some ethicists and journalists. As we know, no human has been cloned yet, and I don’t think one will be. (Although there is no telling what goes on in the secret laboratories of the most powerful armies).
Are we living in a Matrix?
The outrage that broke out at the time reminds me of a recent statement made by Bank of America. Its report contained a sensational hypothesis suggesting we may all be living in a Matrix similar to the one depicted in the famous movie by the Wachowski brothers. The degree of digitization we have achieved and the “virtual” nature of our reality make it conceivable that we too may be a “simulation” of a complex and incredibly developed computer program. I see an analogy between the two events separated by a dozen plus years. It concerns general ethical and philosophical questions. In our civilizational development, we have reached a point where “artificial worlds” — laboratory-produced living organisms and artificial intelligence — may play a critical role in all of our lives. What can we expect? To what end will we use the achievements of today’s science and information technologies? Are people under threat from artificial organisms and AI systems?
What is synthetic biology?
To go back to synthetic biology — what is it? In a nutshell, synthetic biology is a field of science concerned with developing artificial biological systems capable of processing information from the outside. Such information may then be used to produce chemical compounds or energy. Synthetic biology has the potential to program new DNA to build new forms of life, which may be engineered by means of gene sequencing and DNA synthesis. Such forms of life are designed and simulated using computers. Microorganisms and specifically bacteria created in this manner may be applied in a variety of fields. One of them is medicine.
I would like to state my view on the popular opinion that such research may breed abuse. It is difficult to refute these sorts of statements. I realize that humans today already have the capacity to produce viruses that can harm people. I also know that it is possible to combine bacteria with electronic systems into single organisms, which appeals to the imagination of military engineers. I am aware of the Human Genome Project, which has mapped the entire human genome with a view to, as some claims go, creating human-like creatures. Personally, I compare these ominous musings to the arguments of people who at the time the Internet was first created (note that it was born in military laboratories) prophesied that the world wide web would be used primarily to spy on people. Just as today’s Internet can be used for terrorist attacks, so the potential of synthetic medicine may pose theoretical threats. Note one thing however: a number of safeguards are in place in research on genetically-modified bacteria. There is actually a “kill switch” designed to destroy any organisms that breach the perimeters of their designated environments.
And optimistic prospects
Recently, Kickstarter, a platform used to raise funds to finance visionary projects, featured an interesting proposal. Its authors were appealing for money to develop a technology that would make plants glow. This is only one example of the products of synthetic biology being commercialized. I expect a proliferation of initiatives that rely on synthetic biology within the next few years. Importantly, many of them are likely to come from academia. The prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology has for years held a contest for new ideas that utilize science.
The International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition attracts many young students with brilliant ideas. For instance, in 2013 students from Poland submitted the FluoSafe project for enhancing bacteria with a protein that glows in the presence of carcinogenic acrylamide, which is present in e.g. chips and fried meat. Acrylamide was detected by two bacterial sensors. Another example is that of young scientists from Hong Kong who used genetically modified bacteria as an alternative means of storing data. Bacterial disks could be developed to store text, photographs and even videos.
I am confident that the most interesting developments still lie ahead. Synthetic biology is gaining popularity. From a niche field of science, it is evolving into one that draws much attention from industry and business. What fascinates me is how inventions in this field combine with information technology. Perhaps our computer hard drives will soon assume a completely different form.