We must learn to “fly” biology…


From American Scientist:

Biological engineering is nothing new. “Biology is technology,” Carlson declares on the opening page; indeed, he says, “Biology is the oldest technology.” Human beings coevolved with domesticated plants and animals, and one could argue that consciously manipulating other species for our own ends is one of the things that makes humans unique. So what’s new today? Until recently, if biology was technology, our tools were very blunt and could do very little damage if misused. Now the cost and power of tools for sequencing and splicing genes and distributing genetic modifications are following Moore’s Law—every year they get much cheaper and much more powerful. As a result, we can alter organisms much more quickly. Finally, biotechnology is following computing out of the university and corporate lab and into the garage and factory. “The advent of the home molecular-biology lab is not far off,” Carlson says. Cost-effective, biologically based production of goods that are currently manufactured on assembly lines or in refineries will also soon be possible.

Biology may be technology, but we’re not yet very skilled biological engineers. Carlson compares the state of the art to that of two more advanced fields, aircraft engineering and software development. Aerospace engineers work with mathematical models that predict the behavior of a plane’s components under the conditions expected during flight. These models are so precise that it’s now possible to design and test new planes entirely on a computer. The simulations are so good, in fact, that the underlying code can be used in the autopilot that controls a real plane in real time. Biologists, however, work with very rough theories that bear more resemblance to stories than to mathematical equations and have very little predictive power. “Just as we learned to fly aircraft,” Carlson declares, “so must we learn to ‘fly’ biology.” Thanks to cheap computing and simulation software, he says, “biological technology is in the process of moving from qualitative stories to quantitative models.”

The parallel growth of do-it-yourself biology, modeled on the open-source software movement, will provide a very different, but equally useful, set of resources: Lots of skilled laborers will be tinkering with genomes, sharing data with one another and adding to public repositories such as the Registry of Standard Biological Parts. In the next few years, Carlson predicts, we’ll understand genetic mechanisms well enough to think in terms of “BioBricks”—sections of DNA that can be assembled as easily as LEGO building blocks.

‘Learning to “Fly” Biology’, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, American Scientist