Giving Thanks to our Libraries & Bio-Hackers
Much of our biology is more sublime. With the digitization of myriad genomes, we are learning to decode and reprogram the information systems of biology. Like computer hackers, we can leverage a prior library of evolved code, assemblers and subsystems. Many of the radical applications lie outside of medicine.
For example, a Danish group is testing a genetically-modified plant in the war-torn lands of Bosnia and Africa. Instead of turning red in autumn, this plant changes color in the presence of land mines or unexploded ordinance. Red marks the spot for land mine removal.
At MIT, researchers are using accelerated artificial evolution to rapidly breed M13 viruses to infect bacteria in such a way that they bind and organize semiconductor materials with molecular precision.
At IBEA, Craig Venter and Hamilton Smith are leading the Minimal Genome Project. They take the Mycoplasma genitalium from the human urogenital tract, and strip out 200 unnecessary genes, thereby creating the simplest synthetic organism that can self-replicate (at about 300 genes). They plan to layer new functionality on to this artificial genome, to make a solar cell or to generate hydrogen from water using the sun’s energy for photonic hydrolysis (perhaps by splicing in novel genes discovered in the Sargasso Sea for energy conversion from sunlight).
Venter explains: “Creating a new life form is a means of understanding the genome and understanding the gene sets. We don’t have enough scientists on the planet, enough money, and enough time using traditional methods to understand the millions of genes we are uncovering. So we have to develop new approaches… to understand empirically what the different genes do in developing living systems.”
Thankfully, these researchers can leverage a powerful nanoscale molecular assembly machine. It is 20nm on a side and consists of only 99 thousand atoms. It reads a tape of digital instructions to concatenate molecules into polymer chains.
I am referring to the ribosome. It reads mRNA code to assemble proteins from amino acids, thereby manufacturing most of what you care about in your body. And it serves as a wonderful existence proof for the imagination.
So let’s raise a glass to the lowly ribosome and the library of code it can interpret. Much of our future context will be defined by the accelerating proliferation of information technology, as it innervates society and begins to subsume matter into code.
(These themes relate to the earlier posts on the human genome being smaller than Microsoft Office and on the power of biological metaphors for the future of information technology.)
P.S. Happy Thanksgiving, even to the bears… =)