Introduction: Explaining the Future of Synthetic Biology with Computer Programming’s Past
Written by Carly Martin|
April 5, 2016
If you are majoring in biology right now, I say to you: that was a good call. The mounting evidence suggests that you placed your bet on the right degree. With emergent genetic recombination technologies improving at breakneck speed alongside a much deepened understanding of biological circuitry in simple, “home grown” metabolic systems, this field is shaping up to be a tinkerer’s paradise.
Many compare this stage of synthetic biology to the early days of microprocessing (the precursor to computers) when Silicon Valley was a place for young entrepreneurs to go if they needed a cheap place to begin their research or tech business. One such tech entrepreneur, the founder of O’Reilly media, Tim O’Reilly — who also coined the term “open source” — made this comparison in an interview with Wired magazine., O’Reilly further commented on synthetic biology saying, “It’s still in the fun stage.”
In that same article, Bill Gates reinforced this notion: “If you want to change the world in some big way, that’s where you should start — biological molecules.” Gates also went on to say that if he were a teenager today he’d be hacking biology (instead of programming his high school’s scheduling and payroll system — look it up).
Aside: In the wake of the CRISPR-Cas9 article series, I’d like to briefly temper my use of the word “breakneck” and the implication that we have biological circuitry almost figured out. These fields are rapidly growing, of course, but not without their limitations, and this is coupled with the usual fact that there is an infinite amount of biological phenomenon that we don’t understand and a very small proportion of it that we do. Basically, never fear: designer babies are still not a thing, and we aren’t going to be resurrecting the dinosaurs or growing ligers in petri dishes any time soon.
That being said, for all of the brand-new molecular, cellular, genomic, synthetic biologists out there, consider yourself in the ranks of what shall be henceforth remembered as the “tinkering generation.” Right now, we have some components of biological circuitry defined, and it looks like the coming years will be spent rearranging these components, identifying new ones, and seeing what is produced when we put them to work together. Let’s make bones and organs together. Let’s make a microbe that will detect liver cancer. Let’s tweak some bacteria so they’ll produce lovely dyes for scarves. The future of small biology looks big and bright, illuminated by fluorescent algae.
I digress. My point is, biology is becoming even more fun, just as magnetrons and klystrons became really fun before Silicon Valley exploded with microprocessors. The comparison of synthetic biology right now to the advent of microprocessing fifty years ago is enticing because that cascade of innovation in microprocessing led to some very powerful, exciting, fun technology that has become an integral part of our daily lives. I hope to see something similar happen in our time for biotechnology.
The next step is to extend this parallel and ask the question of whether or not synthetic biology will, indeed, follow a similar trajectory of advancement and proliferation like the trajectory demonstrated by the rise of microprocessing in Silicon Valley? What did that trajectory even look like, really? Was it as exhilarating as my impression (founded mainly on urban legend and scant Wired articles) leads me to believe?
So here begins another article series, titled: (Mostly) White Dudes at Play: A Brief History of Silicon Valley. I’d like to characterize the rise of microprocessing, because it’s been suggested by heavy-hitters in this field (O’Reilly and Gates, for starters), that small biology will represent the next comparable wave of technological innovation. I limited my scope to Silicon Valley because I think it best encapsulates the entire arc of the microprocessing story so far.
This one is for the nostalgic computer programmers and speculative synthetic biologists alike. History repeats itself, so perhaps the fresh new biologists of today can glean a game plan from their scientific foil: computer programmers.
Article Series Schedule:
(Mostly) White Dudes at Play: A Brief History of Silicon Valley
- Academic-military-microwave-utopian-industrial complex: 1930-1970
- California-itis: 1980-today
- Finding Biology’s Silicon Valley: where does the current state of synthetic biology fall on the “microprocessor” timeline?