Friday, December 12, 2014

The Revolution in Biology is Here, Now

Mike Loukides wrote in O'Reilly Radar about the BioFabricate summit, The revolution in biology is here, now.

"What I saw, instead, was real products that you might never notice. Bricks made from sand that are held together by microbes designed to excrete the binder. Bricks and packing material made from fungus (mycelium). Plastic excreted by bacteria that consume waste methane from sewage plants. You wouldn’t know, or care, whether your plastic Lego blocks are made from petroleum or from bacteria, but there’s a huge ecological difference. You wouldn’t know, or care, what goes into the bricks used in the new school, but the construction boom in Dubai has made a desert city one of the world’s largest importers of sand. Wind-blown desert sand isn’t useful for industrial brickmaking, but the microbes have no problem making bricks from it. And you may not care whether packing materials are made of styrofoam or fungus, but I despise the bag of packing peanuts sitting in my basement waiting to be recycled. You can throw the fungal packing material into the garden, and it will decompose into fertilizer in a couple of days."

"Several people spoke about their work as “collaboration with biomaterial.” This is a unique and exciting perspective. In computing, we write programs that make computers do things. If the program doesn’t do what we want, we’ve made a mistake. We driving the process: the machine always does what it’s told. In electronics, we assemble parts that, again, do what we want (or not); they have no will of their own. We make things out of metal and concrete by bending and pouring. The metal never decides how to be bent, and the concrete never decides how to pour. Biology is fundamentally different. Biology has been creating and building for billions of years. Its creativity is quite distinct from human creativity; it has evolved extraordinarily efficient systems. So, it’s an act of hubris to talk about designing biological systems. We need to collaborate with biological systems and enable them to design themselves. We need to let them teach us what they are able to do, and build around that. Otherwise, fungus is just a bunch of mushrooms. Maybe tasty, but not a building material."

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