Biotech is coming, quickly, and with nanotechnology helping. NPR broadcast an item in the past week about college students at MIT engineering e. coli bacteria to have a minty fresh smell (instead of poopy one) when growing, and then a banana smell when the culture is mature (link) (link). This reveals a technological capability that was unthinkable to most of us a decade or less ago and goes far beyond the chemistry sets children got for their birthdays in the 1950’s. Young people today are making biotech and the custom engineering of microorganisms an increasingly casual undertaking, as nanotechnology-enhanced bioengineering demonstration kits are appearing in classrooms. How long will it be before bioengineering is a popular hobby among young people, and … what happened to working on cars and playing in rock bands?
Bioengineering, aided by nanotechnology, has a bright future. There are so many possibilities that our biggest resource shortage is that of having enough scientists to pursue more of the avenues, and the possibilities sound like science fiction. For instance, Science fiction writers in the 1950’s wrote about hollow trees that grew rooms, hallways, windows, doors, and plumbing. An old technique of tree modification called “pleaching”, like bonzai on a huge scale, has the capacity to make trees into houses now (link), and combining this and similar concepts with nanotechnology-enhanced bioengineering has great promise for use in a sustainable future. Of course, given the time it takes to grow a tree, purpose-grown tree houses won’t be prevalent until well after the current population boom has passed, but my great grandchildren may see it become reality. (The seeds need to be planted soon …)
Bioengineering and nanotechnology are already being combined. Since nano-scale functions are the basis for life, and genetic bioengineering deals directly with the engineering of life forms, it is only a matter of time before the current electromechanical concept of nanotechnology merges with bioengineering. Today many solutions to relatively simple needs like biologically-controlled adhesion and targeted drug delivery are being pursued. Correspondingly, the development of biological nanotechnology may solve a number of problems with which current nanotechnologists are struggling, such as energy sources and propulsion systems for nanobots.
The future is always closer than we think. While the current developments in nanotechnology are focused on such tasks as creating nanoparticles by chemical means, I expect it may be less than a decade before microorganisms are genetically engineered to assemble nanoparticles. From there it is only a matter of time and effort to progress to the assembly of more sophisticated nano-scale “machines” and the eventual merger of biological concepts into nanotechnology to provide, for example, nano-scale entities with sophisticated functions that gain power from sugars or other substances in their environment, can be communicated with via radio or chemical means, and that move using flagellae. An approach to the power problem, a nanodevice to generate electricity from motion, was recently announced (link). Science is on the edge of having the capability to produce life from scratch, and, while this may seem scary and mysterious, it also promises an amazing future with possibilities we are only beginning to imagine. The train of nanotechnology and bioengineering is in motion, momentum is building, and the best way for us to handle it safely is to know as much about it as possible. From that standpoint, it is good to see young people learning and experimenting with it, enabled by bioengineering learning kits for classrooms (link)
As always, I welcome your comments.
Building Synthetic Genomes: Life from Scratch?, January 25, 2008, Talk of the Nation, National Public Radio
Genetic ‘Jamboree’ Draws Innovators, Nov. 5, 2006, the Boston Globe
Institute of Bioengineering & Nanotechnology website, Singapore
Molecular Bioengineering & Nanotechnology, The University of Washington College of Engineering Bioengineering website, Seattle, WA, USA