May 23rd, 2008at 10:09pm Posted by Eli

Typically, in technology circles, the term “convergence” means the eventual combining of the television and the PC into a single device, which, frankly, I kinda have a hard time seeing.  The convergence that I’ve been seeing lately, which I find very intriguing, is between cellphones and computers, as the former get more and more powerful, and the latter get more and more compact.

We are nearing a point where screen and keyboard size will actually be more significant limiting factors than storage or processing power – and I think foldable OLED screens will provide much relief there, especially if they can also function as touchscreen keyboards.

But that’s not the kind of convergence I want to talk about, either.  I was reading Olivia Judson’s NYT blog entry on cytological hybrids, or “cybrids”: a cell from one species implanted whole into an egg cell of another species, becoming its nucleus, and eventually an embryo of the cell “donor” species, and it hit me. This is just like the DIY hackers I read about all the time in Engadget, the people who stick the guts of a Sega Dreamcast into a jewelry case to create a brand-new portable console.

Not only that, but I’m fascinated by DNA’s similarities to computer code: It’s a set of instructions that is both complex and modular – snippets of it can be copied and pasted to perform the same functions in completely different programs!  It’s also bloated with a lot of useless legacy code that no longer serves a function – some of which is actually old viruses that have been defanged and absorbed.  There can even be copying errors, and compatibility issues if the DNA in a transplanted egg nucleus doesn’t mesh with the DNA in the egg’s mitochondria (which is in fact modified bacteria code).

My point is, the most fascinating and important convergence coming down the pike is the one between technology and biology.  Right now, we’re at the novice stage when it comes to DNA and cell biology, copying and pasting and tweaking here and there, but I think there will come a day when we can actually read DNA like any other kind of programming language.  Which means that we could write and edit it, too.  Which would be both cool (we wouldn’t have to go looking for a gene to perform the function we want – we could just write it from scratch) and kinda scary (what happens when a gene programmer screws up, or a bioterrorist writes The Perfect Virus?).

I’m not sure whether I’m looking forward to it or dreading it, but the possibilities and threats are wide open.

Entry Filed under: Coolness,Science,Technology

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