#1: Discover biotechnology with me, an 11th grader.
By Rohan M.
What do you think of when you imagine the future? Flying cars, super-sonic travel, or floating cities? Moon bases, Martian habitats, or asteroid mining rigs? These are all well and good, but really, quite underwhelming compared to what is possible. If you want a more inspiring and no less realistic vision of the future (and, you SHOULD!) — a dinosaurs-brought-back-to-life, storing-the-internet-in-the-palm-of-your-hand, lifespans-of-hundreds-of-years future — then you have to stray from the beaten path.
The same disciplines that have built our cities, constructed our Internet, and even taken us to the stars just can't bring these things about. To realize them, we need to abandon the idea that engineering is a fundamentally human endeavor, and take a page out of the book of the greatest engineer alive (which, despite what MIT may have told you, is NOT the beaver): life itself!
Do you think I'm giving nature a bit too much credit? Well, think again. Biology has been tinkering for billions of years, back when you and I were but distant thoughts in the core of some decomposing star whose debris had yet to shower the Earth (pardon the melodrama). We might kid ourselves that we know a little something about computers, but the most sophisticated computer ever built – the computer that is supplying me with these words as I’m typing right now – has been patented by Life™.
For that matter, nature also holds records on the world’s most resilient robot – what human-built clunk of metal has opposable thumbs (or, thumbs at all) and can self-heal? And don’t forget the world’s most efficient engine – cellular respiration runs laps around those of gas-powered cars. Each of its creations are nearly flawless, having been perfected under evolution's diligent hand for timescales we can't even comprehend. Hopefully, I've made it clear: we can't outdo biology. But we can work with it.
This revolutionary idea is at the heart of a field known as synthetic biology. And while it's often packaged under the term "genetic engineering", synthetic biology takes the concepts and skills of genetic engineering to the next level. Just like genetic engineers, synthetic biologists can play with an organism's genes – delete them, add new ones, or change their order – but they can also build entirely new organisms, or even change the language their genes are written in altogether. A synthetic biologist has at their disposal both the software (e.g., DNA) and hardware (e.g., cells) of life, as well as all of the components of traditional engineering. They can mix and match these two worlds together as they please, and the possibilities are limitless.
So, what's it going to be: learning to be a plain old engineer, or a synthetic biologist? The answer should be clear – in fact, it's a literal no-brainer, since one discipline can build brains and the other can't. But in case you have any reservations, let me convince you completely with a story: my story.
Hi! My name’s Rohan, and I’m an eleventh grader who’s always been interested in science and math. But (gasp!) I wasn't always a biology-lover. My primary interest was computer science. As I saw it, no other field could get you so much for so little. With the same programming language, you could code up a game, or a website, or even teach a computer how to see.
What I didn't realize is that biology occupies a similar position among the hard sciences. It was reading George Church's book Regenesis that showed me that biology is just as much a world of code, compilers, and robots as traditional computer science. Except in biology, programs are being executed in parallel over trillions of microscopic machines, and their results are manifested in real-life. Biological programs can generate medicines, run therapies, and alter the biochemical composition of their surroundings! One day, they may even be able to make us stronger, smarter, and able to exist in previously hostile environments. Sure, video games are cool, but the ability to turn the real world into your own personal video game is – objectively speaking – much cooler!
Of course, it’s not all fun and games. Synthetic biology is an amazing tool with the potential to solve many of our world’s greatest problems: from climate change, to food scarcity, to genetic disease, and more. But it can just as easily be abused to create all manner of biological weapons, and I’m sure the world needs no reminder of just how powerful disease can be. That’s precisely why instilling an understanding of synthetic biology in the masses is so important. The genie is out of the bottle: we can’t stop the age of synthetic biology, and we shouldn’t want to. In many ways, it represents our civilization’s salvation, our chance at a lasting and sustainable future. What we can do is make sure as many people as possible understand the science and have proper command of the facts, so that we can responsibly direct our governments and political leaders as they begin to pass policy relating to the field. The age of the citizen scientist is now, and it starts with YOU!
So how do I join the global scientific community that is synthetic biology, you ask? Well, you're going to need some guidance. That's where I come in! For the next few months, we'll explore the vast world of genetic engineering and synthetic biology together. By the end, you’ll be able to take what you’ve learned and start doing science of your own: asking new questions, performing novel experiments, and contributing to this wonderful and flourishing field. To accompany the fervor with which we’ll learn, we’re going to use the book Zero-To-Genetic-Engineering Hero as our bible (you might want to get a copy of your own to follow along). Its content is accessible to everyone, whether you’re as comfortable with a pipette as you are with a pencil, or you don’t even know what a pipette is! Not only will it hone our synthetic biology skills, but teach us the importance of safely and responsibly wielding our abilities.
So, are you ready for Chapter 1?