You probably missed it, but a paper in the March 28 issue of Science with the dry-as-dust title, “Amplifying Genetic Logic Gates,” marks a transformative moment in human history. Thanks to a synthetic snippet of DNA, it is now possible to use living genes as computers. This changes pretty much everything. In a generation, the world is going to be an unrecognizable place.
But first, the paper itself.
A team of bioengineers from Stanford University led by Drew Endy have created an artificial biological transistor. This “transcriptor,” as they call it, controls the flow of RNA polymerase along a living gene. If the transcriptor is oriented one way, the RNA polymerase flows. If the transcriptor is flipped, it doesn’t.
Transistors are the on-off switches that made compact computers possible before being replaced by much smaller logic gates. Transcriptors are their genetic equivalent—and radically smaller than anything used today to boot. But where your iPad has electricity flowing along wires, its biological equivalent will have enzymes (the aforementioned RNA polymerase) flowing along genes, making possible a computer so small that it can be inserted into a single-celled creature.
There’s a lot more technical detail in the paper, but that’s all you need to know to understand what’s coming. Anything that can be done with electronics now will soon be possible within a living organism. That organism might be an E. coli bacterium, a daisy, a frog or even you. The scientists were careful to use enzymes that would work in almost any living thing.
Imagine being able to inject all your electronic devices into your own body. Imagine having constant smartphone, email and social media access in your brain, so that you’ll never miss another text message, tweet, Facebook update or phone call from your mother ever again. It may not sound attractive. But it’s coming.
And that’s just the beginning.
Genetic engineers have long been able to rewrite genes in the laboratory. Genetic computing will give them the tools needed to do it within a living human being. Some of what ensures will be irresistible: Implanted sensors will detect cancers when they are so small, they can be eliminated in a single visit to the oncologist. Drugs will be manufactured within the body. Synthetic nerves will allow quadriplegics to walk again. The errors that cause genetic diseases will simply be rewritten.
As will the genes governing breast size, height, longevity, strength and the color of your eyes and skin. If eyebrow rings and ear plugs aren’t eye-catching enough for your taste, you’ll be able to grow tusks, feathers, or tentacles.
Anywhere you want them.
Things will really get interesting when genetic computing interacts with the human brain. In a few decades it should be possible to create neural pacemakers to cure epilepsy and quite possibly even schizophrenia. Shutting down the craving for illegal drugs or undesired sexual acts—undesired by you or your parents, it makes no difference—will be child’s play. It will be possible to house a felon in a prison without locks or guards, knowing that if he tries to leave, all voluntary muscle reflexes will shut down. Or, better yet, to operate him like a drone and use him to fight distant wars from the safety of a boiler-room in Houston.
Human drones are going to be of vital interest to every government on Earth. Once people can be operated by remote control, it will be possible to grab a dissident off the street and re-rig him to act as a spy on his own organization. Or else equip him with explosives, walk him into a mall and set him off, thus discrediting his cause.
There is already a great deal of legal resistance to implanting human genes in animals. But these implants will take place. All it will take is a billionaire who fancies himself a visionary and a nation willing to serve as a flag of convenience.
Can your dog be taught to speak? Will a chimpanzee ever graduate magna cum laude from Harvard? Could a human-porpoise hybrid serve an emissary between the two species? We may soon know.
All this is on its way. The technology cannot be stopped. It can only be understood and controlled. Now is the best of all possible times to start thinking about how this might be done.
One final thought, though. Frederik Pohl once stated that a good science fiction writer should be able to predict not only the automobile but the traffic jam. Not even the best predictor of futures, however, could have foreseen the profound changes the automobile would have on the sexual behavior of teenagers. New technology always has unforeseen implications.
If you think some of the possibilities raised here are strange, wait until you see the outcomes of genetic computation that can’t be predicted.
Three citywide brainy festivals. One skyscraper-sized game of Pong. Infinite future possibilities. And a 70-year flashback to sci-fi history.
PW's Fall Guide 2013