Humans are already good at creating new materials that have never existed on the planet before. But what about new life forms that have never existed before? It's one thing to engineer seeds that produce higher yields or are Round-Up ready, but researchers at the University of Nottingham are going a step farther, putting synthetic biology on the map.
PopSci reports, "With help from researchers elsewhere in the U.K., the U.S., Israel, and Spain, the team is trying to create a “reprogrammable cell” that can act as the in vivo cell equivalent to a computer’s operating system. In other words, they are trying to create cellular software that would let researchers alter living cells without changing their hardware."The program is called Towards a Biological Cell Operating System (AUdACiOuS).
The University of Nottingham's Professor Natalio Krasnogor said, “We are talking about a highly ambitious goal leading to a fundamental breakthrough that will, —ultimately, allow us to rapidly prototype, implement and deploy living entities that are completely new and do not appear in nature, adapting them so they perform new useful functions.”
The possible uses of such technology include creating new food sources that can cope with environmental changes killing traditional crops, from heat to drought to poor soil, as well as provide possibilities for new medical solutions, "such as drugs tailored to individual patients and the growth of new organs for transplant patients." There could also be new microorganism that help clean the environment, from capturing and storing CO2 to purifying water sources.
While exciting, the technology obviously poses some problems that sci-fi movies have brought up time and again -- even if we can, should we? What might be the unintended consequences? And the ever-present and ultimate sci-fi question, what if reprogrammed cells take off on a new and uncontrolled direction of their own?
Krasnogor states, “Currently, each time we need a cell that will perform a certain new function we have to recreate it from scratch which is a long and laborious process. Most people think all we have to do to modify behaviour is to modify a cell’s DNA but it’s not as simple as that — we usually find we get the wrong behaviour and then we are back to square one. If we succeed with this AUdACiOuS project, in five years time, we will be programming bacterial cells in the computer and compiling and storing its program into these new cells so they can readily execute them. Like for a computer, we are trying to create a basic operating system for a biological cell.”
So far, the team cam program cells, but not larger organisms.
PopSci notes, "Synthetic biology as a discipline sometimes catches flak for “playing god”--it does seek to create entirely new forms of life, after all--but it has the potential to open all kinds of doors in everything from pharmaceuticals to clean energy research... An operating system for cells would be a vital enabling technology."
But we have no doubt that there are many people with serious concerns about whether or not customizing life forms to fit our needs -- and doing this at a level far beyond the incremental domestication of plants and animals -- may not be the most brilliant idea or best use of our mental resources.
Either way, the science is making enormous strides, so the debate may be played out in just a matter of a few decades.