What makes you unique? How were you made? And how can we use that information for the good of humankind? These are the sort of questions biologists are asking themselves and which have helped them to invent some of the most forward-thinking biological machines out there. Machines which have the potential to stop epidemics and make distant planets habitable for us humans.

Synthesise me

Living cells are nature’s most efficient and sophisticated machine and scientists can now read DNA like code. They can actually do much more than read it, they can also write and manipulate it, much like a computer programmer. How have they done this? Well, without delving too deep into the kooky world of DNA, biologist have managed to unlock how DNA works, i.e. how it compresses so much information.  They then delved into the data compressions to unlock strings of letters and code that basically make up any living thing.

And genomes are a massive part of biological coding. They’re basically like operating systems and the cells the hardware that boots up a genome. Scientists now have the building blocks they need to create cells themselves and have already created synthetic cells that act like natural ones. They can even reprogram cells where they swap one genome for another, which is called genome transplantation.

They’ve also gone one step further and actually created biological printers and wait for it – biological teleportation machines. That’s right, teleportation. It might sound like something out of Star Trek, but it’s actually already been invented. Both devices translate biological information into digital code which can then be sent to any computer in the world, downloaded and then made into a synthetic cell.

Crazy right? But if you think about it properly, converting biology into code is as ‘out there’ for us as fax machines were in the 80s. People couldn’t comprehend how you can send information across the air for it to print out words and images, and now we use the same fax function via our smartphone without a moment’s hesitation.

The final frontier

Scientists across the world are promising that synthetic cells will spark the next industrial revolution and will change the human race for good. It is going to transform economy, industry and sustainable initiatives for future generations. Here are a few ways that genetic coding could change our lives for the better –

  1. Making clothes from renewable biotechnology
  2. Creating plastic from bio-engineered and degradable synthetics
  3. Bespoke health treatments for patients which can be downloaded to their hospital bedside
  4. Rapid and local response to pathogens and epidemics
  5. Rewriting our own code to prevent disorders such as cerebral palsy and illnesses such as cancer

When it comes to synthetic cells, the sky is not the limit. Dan Gibson, one of the leaders in synthetic cell development, predicts that we’ll be able to transmit data code to other planets including medicines but also synthetic organisms to create oxygen, food, fuel and building materials to make distant planets habitable for us. We’ll be able to send out a message in a digital bottle to anywhere so that it can bring life and health to those shores.

The questions now aren’t what we can do, it’s actually what we shouldn’t do. Biological coding has the potential to do great things in the world, but like any invention that dramatically changes the world, it could do colossal damage when in the wrong hands.

As the biologist, Riccardo Sabatini, says in his Ted Talk “The more we learn about our genetic code, the more the world will be confronted with decisions it’s never had to make before – about life, about death, about parenting. We are touching the very inner details of how life works. It’s a revolution that cannot be defined in the realms of science and technology, it needs to be a global conversation, with artists, philosophers and politicians .”

Photo by Drew Hays on Unsplash