What if...?

Synthetic biology is still a new field, and victories are small and incremental. Much of the promise and peril of synthetic biology still lies in the future: genetic devices made to order, computer aided genome design, organisms specially constructed for specific industrial purposes. Will we use this biological technology for good--new more affordable and accessible drugs, better vaccines to emerging diseases, and clean energy--or evil--new deadly pathogens and immortal super soldiers? I think it's safe to say that almost everyone hopes that we'll get all of the good stuff without any of the bad stuff, but it's difficult to even predict what the good stuff is going to actually be like in the first place. The New Yorker article on synthetic biology from a few months ago quoted Drew Endy discussing the accelerating pace of technology development and the difficulty in predicting how it will all turn out:

Synthetic biology is changing so rapidly that predictions seem pointless. Even that fact presents people like Endy with a new kind of problem. "Wayne Gretzky once said, 'I skate to where the puck is going to be.' That's what you do to become a great hockey player," Endy told me. "But where do you skate when the puck is accelerating at the speed of a rocket, when the trajectory is impossible to follow? Whom do you hire and what do we ask them to do? Because what preoccupies our finest minds today will be a seventh-grade science project in five years. Or three years."

Different people have very ideas about what this future is going to look like. Engineers see a future where progress in biology mirrors progress in computer science, with well documented, easily manipulated, off-the-shelf parts being combined in "chassis" cells by synthetic biologists at enormous corporations and hackers and hobbyists for all sorts of applications. Law enforcement and bioterror specialists see the scary stuff, the technology getting into the wrong hands, containment issues, intentional misuse. DARPA envisions an immortal organisms with a built in molecular kill switch (really!). Artists and designers like James King and Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, who I met at iGEM last year while they were working with the winning Cambridge team and are totally awesome, consider different kinds of questions. They recently designed a window display for the UK's Wellcome Trust asking "What If...?"

i-4108f92e07ed68998ad790c15decbb4d-wtx058378-thumb-510x157-40542.jpgWhat if everyday products contained synthetically produced living components? What if we accept co-evolution with bacteria, microbes and parasites as a healthy option? What if bacteria recoloured our world? The last question comes from the designers' collaboration with the Cambridge iGEM team, which designed strains of E. coli that secrete pigments in response to arbitrary inputs. How might one use such a strain in the future, in ten, twenty, fifty years? What if you could repopulate your own gut bacteria with a color secreting strain that can sense different markers of health and disease? Their answer was the E. chromi scatalog, a briefcase full of technicolor poo:

i-40ce2bf336cf375214f6f4b723c368f2-E.chromi-thumb-510x193-40545.pngOur ideas of progress, of what the future brings, of the promises and perils of modern science, are hopelessly complex and intertwined with our own perspectives and prejudices. Scientists, engineers, business people, artists, science fiction writers, teachers, politicians, anthropologists, students, bloggers, philosophers, bioethicists, clergy, and voters will all have different things to say and different hopes for the future. What do you think the future will bring?

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But wait. Aren't bacteria already "immortal"? And without a "kill switch"?

Engineering bioweapons should be off limits, and (I think) already is via bioweapons treaties. If not, then it should be made off limits ASAP.

But I am not terribly worried about organisms engineered to do something other than reproduce. They will likely fair quite badly against "wild" organisms that evolved to do nothing but reproduce.

That's a good point, Daedalus, but while a population of bacteria may be "immortal" in that it can keep growing as long as there is food around, an individual cell will eventually die. As far as I can tell the project is to prevent individual cells from aging and dying, but I could be wrong! There's not a lot of detailed info available, although that's not very surprising...

Would like to point out for clarities sake that the Cambridge iGEM team was all about the colours, not the poo :p The scatalog was purely Daisy and James's idea (and for the record I do think it's an awesome idea, would make things like hospital diagnosis a lot easier).

Christina, I think you are right, that the terms are not very well defined. I don't think they have a good idea of what "immortal" actually means in this context.

There are some suggestions that individual bacteria can live for very long times. I am thinking about bacteria supposedly found in inclusions in salt crystals where the crystals formed millions of years ago. It obviously takes some metabolic activity to fix DNA and other damage from background radiation.

I think the ideas have come from non-biologists who don't understand that to make something that can repair itself with extremely high fidelity for an indefinite period is going to be really really difficult and won't give it any special powers or abilities, rather that "immortality" will come at a great cost in terms of doing anything else. That extreme repair fidelity will have a metabolic cost which will detract from what ever else the organism can do.

They won't be like the Vampires and Frankenstein monsters of fiction, that are simultaneously immortal, extremely strong, and extremely resistant to damage.

"They won't be like the Vampires and Frankenstein monsters of fiction, that are simultaneously immortal, extremely strong, and extremely resistant to damage."

No, those would be Prions...