Provocation: The Implications of Synthetic Biology

Posted by chichi | Synthetic Biology | Monday 26 October 2009 5.10 pm

The Implications of Synthetic Biology

Dr Martyn Amos, Senior Lecturer and Public Engagement Fellow, Department of Computing and Mathematics, Manchester Metropolitan University puts forward this provocation on Synthetic Biology:

The engineering of living cells is now routine; synthetic biologists are beginning to harness the power of life for the purposes of human-engineered processing.

Cells, gels and DNA are the wetware of the 21st century.

Engineered biological micro-bots will be directed at some of the most challenging problems facing humanity, but what are the risks, and who might get hurt?

A slightly scary future, some might say.

What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Image credit: New Scientist


  1. Comment by Alec — October 27, 2009 @ 9.33 pm

    I have heard that some of this technology would be able to self replicate. If this is the case how do we stop the world being overcome by a grey sludge

  2. Comment by Erinma — October 27, 2009 @ 10.54 pm

    Hope to hear more about the challenging problems that could be solved – and how close some of this technology is to solving those challenges

  3. Comment by Liz — October 28, 2009 @ 9.27 am

    Is this anyway linked to Biomimicry? A very interesting area of work. If it’s not maybe it should be.

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  5. Comment by Martyn Amos — October 28, 2009 @ 3.33 pm

    Thanks for the comments so far.

    Firstly, Alex, cells and bacteria already self-replicate, and I see no sign of grey sludge. The bacteria we’re using won’t have “super powers”, as it were – they will still be constrained by fairly rigourous physical limitations. They’ll just be doing stuff that they didn’t evolve to do, but which we can engineer in to them.

    Liz – biomimicry is relevant, and my group at MMU works quite heavily in this area (google “novel computation group” + mmu). However, that’s using nature as INSPIRATION; what we’re doing with SB is DIRECTLY USING nature as a computational substrate.

  6. Comment by Erinma — October 28, 2009 @ 10.44 pm

    computational substrate – what’s that in layman’s terms?

  7. Comment by julian — October 28, 2009 @ 10.59 pm

    I have read that the reason why the Earth is habitable in the first place and one of the reasons that there is so much iron in the ground is that there was a microbial process that sequestrated toxic gases in the atmosphere in the first few billion years of the Earth’s existence and these microbes don’t exist anymore except perhaps around the ‘hot smokers’ in the ocean floors. So I can see the argument for creating a biological solution to eradicate certain pollutants. But these primordial bacteria existed in a time where there was no complex life forms. What checks are in place before something is released into the wild?

  8. Comment by Sam — October 29, 2009 @ 7.35 am

    Great points Julian, talking of checks and balances I’m interested in the whole Prometheus / Frankenstein thang…how long will it be before I can produce my own army of superhuman beings?

  9. Comment by Martyn Amos — October 31, 2009 @ 4.32 pm

    Erinma: “computational substrate” = “stuff out of which computers are built”.

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