In his book, A Many Colored Glass, Freeman Dyson describes his vision of a future in which humanity uses synthetic biology (engineered life forms and the like) to expand across the solar system and eventually the galaxy. As Arthur C Clarke said:
“If an elderly but distinguished scientist says that something is possible, he is almost certainly right; but if he says that it is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”
It would be hard indeed to argue that Professor Dyson is not close to the epitome of an elderly but distinguished scientist, and today I visited a lab at Ames that is working hard to prove both Dyson and Clarke right. Specifically, the aptly named Synthetic Biology Lab.
Their website is sadly yet another example of NASA projects being sold short because those involved are too busy actually doing the awesome research to spend much time on PR. It isn’t obvious, but the projects include everything from creating concrete with proteins and moon dust to engineering bacteria that can generate propellant by munching on asteroids.
The exciting vision of the lab was summed up to me in this [paraphrased] quote:
“Synthetic biology provides a reprogrammable software (the DNA of bacteria or fungus) that can build its own hardware.”
How cool would that be?