Biological manufacturing

Sometimes, when I take a step back and look at the ways that we can manipulate life, I’m astounded. We can breed mice that lack any gene we want. We can also insert new genes, and have them only express in certain types of cells or only at certain times. This is routine. We can make design viruses to insert genes into human cells to cure, cure debilitating diseases.

We have bacteria that play sudoku, and we have mice born with two fathers. We can make corn express toxins from Bacillus that only kill pests, and tobacco and cats that glow green (through two different mechanisms even).

Our understanding and our technology is moving fast. For many years, I’ve envisioned the day when buildings will be genetically engineered and grown from seeds. Most people (even other biologists) thought I was crazy, but now I feel validated:

Picture a production process that has plenty in common with agar jelly (used to culture organic materials in laboratories) and little in common with what we would normally think of as production-line automotive manufacturing. You are starting to get close to what the people at Mercedes-Benz have spawned with the BIOME – one of the most outlandish and ambitious concepts in this year’s Los Angeles Design Challenge.

In short, the BIOME would be grown in a lab rather than built on a production line.

To be fair, this is from a design competition, and a lot of the concepts here are significantly beyond our current level of technology, but I think the spirit of the idea is sound.

I actually don’t think it will be that long (within my life time) before we’re at least growing more components for manufacturing using living systems, if not entire structures. If that seems crazy to you, read the first two paragraphs again.


  1. #1 MArgo J. Kipps
    December 12, 2010

    I still remember your omnibus topic and argument that if people want to stop cloning and other genetic engineering, they will have to stop doing skin grafts, etc. The brave new world really is here.

  2. #2 Steve
    December 13, 2010

    Aren’t you worried at all about how this technology will affect humans and other life forms? Won’t these genetically modified materials cause diseases at least as much as they cure some?

  3. #3 Kevin
    December 13, 2010

    @ Ms Kipps – Wow, I barely remember that. The only reason I do is because the satire I wrote for the omnibus got published in Free Inquiry magazine.

    @ Steve – The short answer is “no.” That’s not to say that this technology lacks risks, or lacks potential for abuse, but if we look at the history of bioengineering, I think the benefits far outweigh the potential harm. We’ve been bioengineering for over 20 years now, leading to the remarkable advances that I mentioned, and I don’t know of a single example of disease caused by these methods (if there are examples that I’m unaware of, they are rare enough I think that it doesn’t change the larger point).

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