Synthetic Genomics

Craig Venter has finally gone public with his latest venture, synthetic genomics, inc. Just as with the synthetic biology company Codon Devices, there’s not much specific information about what they plan to do, but the non-specific version of the story is that they want to make (!) a simple bacterium by subtracting circuitry from it, and then reprogram it to do useful things, like making hydrogen for your fuel-cell roadster.

As wacky as it all sounds, I’m a believer. Humans currently use extraordinarily energy-intensive processes to build things, process that also generate greenhouse gases. A lot of what we melt, burn, and grind into useful products can be grown quietly at room temperature. For instance, the process for making computer chips begins with heating silicon up to 1600 degrees F so that a giant single crystal of silicon can be grown. A sea urchin, on the other hand, sitting in cold seawater and working with whatever materials float by, manufactures its sharp spines by growing single crystals of calcite. Calcite is not silicon, but still! As Laurie Gower, an expert on biomaterials at the University of Florida in Gainesville, says:

The real goal of biomimetic engineering is learning how to draw on nature’s ideas. If you could take any material and learn how to mould it or shape it in this way, you could gain far more control over its optical, electronic or mechanical properties.

Programmable biological material generation. It won’t happen tomorrow, but it’s already in the mail.