Dispatches from the Future


It's been a few weeks since the iGEM jamboree, a whirlwind, completely exhausting weekend of student synthetic biology projects. This tweet from Robin Sloan from the #igem2010 stream is a pretty good way to sum up the weekend:

Tweets tagged #igem2010 right now read like dispatches from the future. (It's the big student synthetic biology [!!] conference.)less than a minute ago via Twitter for iPhone

Bacteria that fill in cracks in concrete, bacteria that feel empathy, probiotic bacterial sentinels as new antibiotics, bacteria that play sudoku, yeast that can live on mars, bacteria that produce enough light to read a book by, personalized cancer targeting viruses, engineering the bacteria that live in mosquitos to kill malaria and so many more, this year's jamboree was packed with cool project ideas, and amazing and enthusiastic students who will perhaps some day go on to see these ideas through and will definitely go on to even bigger and cooler projects.

Outside of the pressures of industry and professional academia (and the need for money making and publishable results), with the opportunity to ask crazy questions, the iGEM students have a unique opportunity to think about what the future of biological engineering will be and imagine short-term projects around such a long-term future. How will we design nature? How will bacteria--wild type and engineered--play a role in our lives? How will biology change industry, medicine, our daily life? Will it be fair, carbon neutral, safe? Will it look like the "DNA-industrial" world that Bruce Sterling envisions in "Tomorrow Now"? How will we get there?

The genetically engineered world Sterling predicts is not one of engineered super-babies (would you want to be the beta version, coming of age just as you were becoming obsolete?), but of cultivated and carefully groomed and engineered bacterial symbionts:

You're into germs because germs are into you. No man ever walks alone. Every human adult carries about two pounds of living bacteria, or about a hundred trillion non-human cells. This is entirely normal and good. It's something you understand about the real world that twentieth-century people did not see and could not perceive. They had this crude, desperate insight they called "sanitation," while you possess a genuine insight and a hands-on technical mastery of that situation. Unlike those blind primitives, you walk your seething Earth in an aware, fully engaged progressive civilized fashion. You swarm inside and out with microbes, and it's good for you. You recognize and celebrate this. People chat about their germs over coffee--it's like comparing perfumes. In your world, germs areperfumes. Anyone who smells bad is an utter ignoramus.

Such a future isn't just about replacing existing industries with biotech, but reimagining industry and technology in terms of living things, at the micro-, human-, and ecological scale. It's not about using bacteria to identify or try to clean up the messes of our industrial present, the oil spills and the heavy metals (although these could potentially do lots of good in the short term and there is certainly no shortage of projects like this at iGEM), it's about envisioning a world where large scale ecological disasters aren't par for the industrial course. It's not about bacteria being engineered to do things that computers can do, but understanding and rethinking our relationships with bacterial ecologies, re-domesticating what we've spent the last century sanitizing and at the same time fighting off the antibiotic resistant pathogens that have become part of our modern antibacterial-gel-filled life. It's not even necessarily about DNA or industry, but of whole organisms, microbial cells that are constantly working inside and around, with or without us. Such a future can be healthy, personalized, good. How would you design nature?

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I personally don't believe in that healthy future. Most of the world don't give a damn about everything you write about.