How Scientists Plan To Grow Cities Out Of Living Organisms

Gizmodo – by Jennifer Ouellette

Imagine a future where there is no need to cut down a tree and reshape that raw material into a chair or table. Instead, we could grow our furniture by custom-engineering moss or mushrooms. Perhaps glowing bacteria will light our cities, and we’ll be able to bring back extinct species, or wipe out Lyme disease — or maybe even terraform Mars. Synthetic biology could help us accomplish all that.  

The promise of synthetic biology: Paris-based startup Glowee wants to tweak genes of common bacteria so that they are bioluminescent, thereby creating a potential alternative light source for future cities. (Image: Glowee)

That’s the message of the latest video in a new mini-documentary Web series called Explorations, focusing on potentially transformative areas of scientific research: Genomics, artificial intelligence, neurobiology, transportation, space exploration and synthetic biology. It’s a passion project of entrepreneur Bryan Johnson, founder of OS Fund and the payments processing company Braintree.

There’s a good selection of featured voices in the video. You’ve got pioneers like Harvard’s George Church and Drew Endy of Stanford University mixed in with visionaries like Rehma Shetty of Ginkgo Bioworks(which designs custom microbes, like yeast that smells like grapes, and dreams of building furniture from genetically tailored fungi); the folks at Paris-based startup Glowee (who think bioluminescence is the future of lighting); and artist/designer Daisy Ginsberg, who weaves synthetic biology into her creative projects to reimagine systems design.

“The most stunning and consequential development of our time is this: We have built tools of creation that increasingly have the power to literally code any kind of world we imagine,” Johnson wrote earlier this year at the Daily Dot about his conception of the series. “Synthetic biology allows us to program organisms to grow objects. Genomics is starting to allow us to program our bodies. AI allows us to build new forms of intelligence.” He hopes the series will inspire young people in particular to build that visionary future world.

Not everyone is as big a fan as Johnson of synthetic biology and these other cutting-edge fields. Progress brings both promise and potential peril, after all. In 2012, more than 100 environmental groups issued a manifesto calling for a global ban on the use of synthetic organisms commercially until better regulations and safety measures are in place. And a new Pew Research Center poll released last week found that most Americans remain fearful of so-called “designer babies“, implanted brain chips and other biological enhancements.

Even strong proponents of synthetic biology acknowledge that there are many philosophical and ethical that need to be addressed regarding this rapidly evolving field. But synthetic biology is here to stay. It’s up to us to make sure that it’s used responsibly.

Be sure to check out the first two videos in the series as well.

6 thoughts on “How Scientists Plan To Grow Cities Out Of Living Organisms

  1. “Imagine a future where there is no need to cut down a tree…..blah, blah, blah….

    Yes. When introducing (or selling) a new technology to the public, there will always be a long list of wonderful, idyllic possibilities explained, but you have to use your imagination a bit to try and guess what evil designs the sick bastards will actually use it for.

    Forget the advertisement. Remember who’s behind it, and what their evil plans are for all of us.

    “Imagine a future where there is no need for prisons, because our genetically modified mosquitoes will seek out all the bad people and kill them with a deadly virus.” — Dr. Jewbaum.

    1. Even when scientists conduct research with the purest of intentions, very often they’re still unwittingly helping to pave the road to hell. Any time ANY new technology is developed, we can be sure that the psychopaths in the US government will seek a way to exploit it for their own ends.

      In many ways Ted Kaczynski was right. Humanity in general doesn’t have nearly the wisdom or moral judgment needed to responsibly handle the power technology brings. It’s like giving a loaded gun to every chimp in the zoo.

      Still, despair is not an option. It falls to us to fight fire with fire by using technology to defend freedom and human rights.

  2. This is what happens when some dumba$$ scientist watches Aeon Flux to many times on a loop.
    Sure, Charlize Theron looked sexy an all, but the weirdy things the plants did in that movie was pretty creepy.
    But the weirdest part, was that girl who had hands where her feet were supposed to be. That’s just plain wrong!
    Oh, and at the end, (I hope I’m not spoiling this for anybody) You come to find out that the whole city has been populated by clones the whole time.
    All the tech in that movie was biologically based. Except for the weapons. Freaky plants.

  3. “But synthetic biology is here to stay. It’s up to us to make sure that it’s used responsibly.”

    HOW… exactly?

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