Mixed Feelings I

November 14th, 2007at 06:11pm Posted by Eli

On the one hand, kinda cool. On the other hand, kinda terrifying…

College and high school students are helping MIT scientists develop an open source development kit for biological systems that could do for cells what Linux has done for computers.

As part of the International Genetically Engineered Machines competition held in Cambridge, Massachusetts, last week, Peking University students created tiny assembly lines out of bacteria. Their entry, “Towards a Self-Differentiated Bacterial Assembly Line,” won them the grand prize among 50 teams from around the world.

“Biology is going to be able to make the things that we want,” said Tom Knight, an MIT engineer and co-founder of iGEM. “And when that happens, the economics of production are going to change dramatically. It doesn’t take a billion-dollar [facility] to make stuff. It takes a hundred-dollar incubator.”

…Knight and his colleagues Randy Rettberg and Drew Endy, who created the contest in 2004, want to make biological systems easy to build by applying the tools of computer science and engineering: using standard parts and modular design to simplify complex systems. The goal is to create “genetic Legos” that could produce any chemical, from ethanol to pharmaceuticals.


All of the teams contributed standardized DNA snippets, or BioBricks, to the Registry of Standard Biological Parts. One of the best new BioBricks was the Melbourne team’s gas-vesicles code. It results “in buoyancy chambers that can be booted up inside any bacteria,” Endy said. In other words, the BioBrick allows researchers to make floating bacteria at will. It could be used for harvesting bacteria that have generated a product, like biofuel.


New BioBricks are continually added to the thousands that already exist in the registry. The goal is to create an “Open Microbe,” an “open source chassis for assembling biological systems,” Knight said.

A consortium of universities will release the first draft of the BioBrick Public License in 2008. It will allow anyone to use the biological parts — essentially a cellular dev kit — for free.

Knight believes the collegiate competitors of today will be the Packards, Wozniaks and Bells of tomorrow.

“The last century was dominated by engineering based upon the scientific principles that come out of physics,” Knight said. “This century will be dominated by the engineering that comes out of biology and biochemistry.”

What could possibly go wrong?

Entry Filed under: Coolness,Science,Technology

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