Thursday, July 06, 2006

Repurposing Life

A couple of very interesting articles - one very in-depth report at Wired, and a fluffier piece at MSNBC - deal with the fascinating subject of programmable biology. For all that I bang on sometimes about the dangers of superplagues unleashed by crazed extinctionists, it's only fair that I also take a look at some of the more positive developments.

First, the MSNBC article, Making Factories and Computers With DNA. According to the article (and I've seen referrences to this kind of work before) DNA is being exploited by many researchers, not for it's information-carrying and processing capability, but for it's structural talent. Essentially, DNA loves to hook up with DNA, and if you arrange the base-pairs just right - something that's getting cheaper to do all the time - you can get it to self-assemble into complex three dimensional mechanical structures. On it's own this isn't all that useful, as DNA is kind of floppy: you can make something that looks like a gear, but when you try to use it like one it'll disappoint pretty quick. But you can use it as what amounts to a scaffold. The result: smaller, faster electronics, and an on-ramp to molecular nanotechnology.

The Wired, Life, Reinvented, looks at a completely different aspect of programmable biology. Rather than using DNA as a simple construction platform, programmable biology aims to create wholly synthetic life-forms, starting with a from-the-ground-up rewriting of the genetic code.

Part of this involves making 'biobricks', a standardized set of genetic components that would perform functions analogous to logic gates. This would radically simplify biological engineering, bringing it into the same ballpark as writing computer code.

Another trick they're looking at is reassigning various codons (three-nucleotide sequences) in order to widen the 'vocabulary' of life, allowing the inclusion of far more than the 20 amino acids that life has heretofore been limited to; this has the added benefit that such organisms would find everything else in the biosphere inedible, thus somewhat reducing the risk of an intentional pandemic.

The initial goal is to create industrial bacteria whose genomes have been stripped down to the raw essentials so as to make them much easier to program for various tasks, such as cleaning pollution or synthesizing everything from drugs to plastics. Further down the line, well, imagine planting a seed and digging up a car a year later.

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