Hacking life

Today (er, yesterday) was a big day for science.  In the May 20th issue of Science, there was an interesting paper detailing how researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute (yup, name means nothing to me there) successfully created a life-form containing entirely artificial DNA [abstract,PDF].  This is really exciting stuff.

As the authors of the paper note, sequencing genomes is nothing new, but there’s a gigantic leap between just knowing how something is made and being able to make it yourself.  Although this modified strain of yeast has mostly stock genes from other yeast and just over a million base pairs, Wired Science notes that our ability to manufacture chunks of DNA has grown by around 100x in the last five years.  Following such a linear pattern, we would be able to build a human genome from scratch (~3 billion base pairs) within ten years.  From here, where can we go?  Anywhere.

Consider what living things do in nature.  Now take some of that variety and modify it a little to do something more useful.  Say, design an enzyme allowing yeast to break down oil from spills and removing any other metabolic pathways.  You suddenly have a bacterium which eats oil spills, then the colony dies when the oil goes away.

Sure, something like that is a ways off; we don’t have anywhere the necessary knowledge of the biochemistry involved in such a thing (or do we..?  I could be entirely wrong).  Proteins are amazingly complex molecules, and their assembly/folding is rather poorly understood at best.  However, give it a while, and we could begin to do radical things within the framework of living things.  Say, custom-designed viruses to patch our genomes.  Literally, life hacking.

This is simply incredible stuff, and it’s the first step toward the singularity, IMHO.  More thoughts on that in the coming days.

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