Most of my professional life is centered on synthetic biology, an industry and movement to make biology easier to engineer. So far, this emerging discipline has yielded everything from living medicines and spider silk jackets to impossible hamburgers. But what will humankind be growing in the next century?
I came across a magical video that I think helps to show this. Vasil Hnatiuk, an Emmy award-winning animator, who has since become a friend, created this beautiful answer. In just two minutes, he invites us to see a universe where manufacturing, transportation, entertainment and more have all been radically transformed through the power of synthetic biology.
The video features flying vehicles inspired by insects, an excavator crossed with a crab, a supercomputer made from actual neurons, and much more. How are all these bits of science fiction connected? By unlocking the DNA code, Hnatiuk explains, our species could usher in the greatest technological advancement ever witnessed.
You could call me a bio-futurist, but what do the founders of the field think?
I asked famed Harvard geneticist George Church for his take on the video: “much of engineering is about reordering matter into other structures in a reliable and affordable way. But life already makes atomically precise objects at large scale, and it does so inexpensively.” To expand the kinds of things that can be built with biology, figures like Church are leading the push to make DNA easier to read, write and edit.
In imagining how to grow buildings of the future, synthetic biologists consider how to impart the instructions to follow an architectural plan in the same way that nature imparts the instructions on how to become a human, a tree, or a bee. Vasil Hnatiuk
In construction, this could mean growing rather than building our homes and cities, as Hnatiuk illustrates. Several synthetic biology companies are in the earliest stages of doing this, having produced insulation and other biodegradable building materials using fungus. The biomaterials company Ecovative has already partnered with IKEA, Dell, and other household brands who are looking to move away from styrofoam packaging towards bio-based packaging that’s grown from mushroom roots.
In transportation, this could mean new biological vehicles, both on Earth and in space. Obviously, no one has such a product on the market or is even close, but as I wrote last week, investors like Jeff Bezos who are interested in long-term space missions should take note of the power of engineered biology. NASA is already testing how well algae suck up carbon dioxide when grown on the International Space Station.
A number of non-fictional firms appear in the video essay. A SpaceX logo is clearly visible on a squid-like space-faring vessel, and a giant wasp-inspired racer is stamped with a black horse on a yellow shield — the unmistakable mark of a Ferrari. These corporate nods are reminiscent of the very real fact that many of the biggest brands are taking an interest in synthetic biology, from Microsoft’s project around storing data in DNA to the North Face’s spider silk jacket with partner Spiber. United Airlines has even begun using bio-based jet fuel made by companies like Lanzatech, which is using engineered microbes to convert waste CO2 into fuel.
“We don’t yet fully understand the power of the genetic code, and we have only scratched the surface of its potential,” said Axel Trefzer, director of synthetic biology research and development for the biotech supply company ThermoFisher. “I strongly believe that engineering biology will bring us many advancements that we can’t even envision today.”
Artist’s conception of what a bioengineered flying sports craft could look like in the future. Fasten your seat belt — the future will be built by biology. Vasil Hnatiuk
Are far-out animated visions of the future useful? Stanford bioengineer Drew Endy, one of the founders of the field of synthetic biology, believes such work is “absolutely essential.” Depicting technology as it might be, rather than simply how it is today, offers a chance to reassess what is considered possible. “Too many people are simply recreating the status quo.”
Elon Musk clearly gets this message. As part of a 2016 effort to inspire the public into believing in his plans to get humans to Mars, Musk’s rocket company SpaceX released a four-minute animation of its theoretical Interplanetary Transport System. The video has since racked up over six million views on YouTube, and SpaceX’s valuation now exceeds $30B. Visions of the future can inspire long before they ever have a chance of becoming true.
Science fact versus science fiction
Stanford’s Endy is skeptical about ever riding in a tentacle-clad spaceship. The vacuum of space is rather unforgiving to life. But synthetic biology “fully realized”, he said, would result in “practical mastery of joules, bits, and atoms, together.”
Many people expect more flying drones in the future, but could we really be riding on giant engineered animals? I asked Church what he thought of the video’s more fantastical visions.
“The largest flying animal was Quetzalcoatlus northropi at 200 kilograms,” he said. “It could fly at 130 kilometers per hour. This is probably not the upper limit, but it is likely very hard to beat a 285,000 kilogram Antonov-225 or the X-15 at 7,200 kilometers per hour.”
In this depiction of Quetzalcoatlus northropi, a juvenile titanosaur has been caught by one pterosaur, while the others stalk through the scrub in search of small vertebrates and other food. Biology can grow very big things. Mark Witton and Darren Naish
How about cities grown from seeds?
What about the brain?
Church noted human brains perform at 20 watts, which is far more power-efficient than the best silicon computers. His research group at Harvard has worked to fully map activity in the human brain and is even growing miniature ones to better understand how they function.
It is not hard to see that rewriting the code of life will lead to new insights and cures. But visions like Hnatiuk’s are important reminders that, when it comes to this new century of biology, we ain’t seen nothing yet.
Disclaimer: I am the founder of SynBioBeta, the innovation network for the synthetic biology industry. Some of the companies that I write about are sponsors of the SynBioBeta conference (click here for a full list of sponsors).