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Make me a hipporoo
11 February 2006
From New Scientist Print Edition.
Freeman Dyson

It has become part of the accepted wisdom to say that the 20th century was the century of physics and the 21st century will be the century of biology. Two facts about this century are agreed by almost everyone. Biology is now bigger than physics, as measured by the size of budgets, by the size of the workforce or by the output of major discoveries, and biology is likely to remain the biggest part of science through the 21st century. Biology is also more important than physics, as measured by its economic consequences, by its ethical implications or by its effects on human welfare.

These facts raise an interesting question. Will the domestication of technology, which we have seen marching from triumph to triumph with the advent of personal computers, GPS receivers and digital cameras, soon be extended from physical technology to biotechnology? I believe the answer is yes. I predict that the domestication of biotechnology will dominate our lives during the next 50 years at least as much as the domestication of computers has dominated our lives during the past 50 years.

I was lucky to be at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton in the 1940s and 1950s when John von Neumann began designing and building the first electronic computer that operated with instructions coded into the machine. It was his invention of software that gave the computer agility and flexibility. Yet it never entered von Neumann's head that computers would become small enough and cheap enough for doing income tax returns and homework. He imagined them as giant centralised facilities serving large research laboratories or large industries. According to legend, somebody in the government once asked von Neumann how many computers the United States would need in the future. And he replied, "18".

I see a close analogy between von Neumann's blinkered vision of computers as large centralised facilities and the public perception of genetic engineering today as an activity of large pharmaceutical and agribusiness corporations such as Monsanto. The public distrusts Monsanto because the company likes to put genes for pesticides into food crops, just as we distrusted von Neumann because he liked to use his computer for designing hydrogen bombs secretly at midnight. It is likely that genetic engineering will remain unpopular and controversial so long as it remains a centralised activity in the hands of large corporations.

Yet I see a bright future for the biotech industry when it follows the path of the computer industry that von Neumann failed to see, and becomes small and domesticated rather than big and centralised. The first step in this direction was taken recently, when genetically modified tropical fish with new and brilliant colours appeared in pet stores. For biotechnology to become domesticated, the next step is to become user-friendly.

I recently spent a happy day at the Philadelphia Flower Show, the biggest flower show in the world, where flower breeders from all over the world show off the results of their efforts. I have also visited the Reptile Show in San Diego, California, an equally impressive show displaying the work of another set of breeders. Philadelphia excels in orchids and roses, San Diego in lizards and snakes. Every orchid or rose or lizard or snake is the work of a dedicated and skilled breeder. There are thousands of people who devote their lives to this business.

Now imagine what will happen when the tools of genetic engineering become accessible to these people. There will be do-it-yourself kits for gardeners who will use genetic engineering to breed new varieties of roses and orchids. Also kits for lovers of pigeons and parrots and lizards and snakes to breed new varieties of pets. Breeders of dogs and cats will have their kits too.

Domesticated biotechnology, once it gets into everyone's hands, will give us an explosion of diversity of new living creatures, rather than the monoculture crops that the big corporations prefer. New lineages will proliferate to replace those that monoculture farming and industrial development have destroyed. Designing genomes will be a personal thing, a new art form as creative as painting or sculpture. Few of the new creations will be masterpieces, but all will bring joy to their creators and variety to our fauna and flora.

The final step in the domestication of biotechnology will be biotech games, designed like computer games for children down to kindergarten age, but played with real eggs and seeds rather than with images on a screen. Playing such games, kids will acquire an intimate feeling for the organisms that they are growing. The winner could be the kid whose seed grows the prickliest cactus, or the kid whose egg hatches the cutest dinosaur. These games will be messy and possibly dangerous. Rules and regulations will be needed to make sure that our kids do not endanger themselves and others.

If the domestication of biotechnology is the wave of the future, five important questions need to be answered. First, can it be stopped? Second, ought it to be stopped? Third, if stopping it is either impossible or undesirable, what are the limits our society must impose on it? Fourth, how should the limits be decided? Fifth, how should the limits be enforced, nationally and internationally? I leave it to you and your grandchildren to supply the answers to these questions.

Plants on Mars

The actual shape of domesticated biotechnology is as impossible for us to discern today as the actual shape of a personal computer was impossible for von Neumann to discern in 1950. The best that I can do is to describe the functions of a DIY biotechnology kit. I cannot guess the shapes of the gadgets that will carry out the functions. The kit will have five chief functions. First, to grow plants under controlled conditions. This requires a garden or greenhouse with the usual tools and chemical supplies. Second, to grow animals under controlled conditions.

This requires a stable for big animals or cages for small animals, with the usual supplies of food and medicaments. Third, simple and user-friendly instruments allowing unskilled people to manipulate seeds or eggs or embryos. Fourth, a table-top genome sequencer able to sequence single molecules of DNA. Fifth, a table-top genome synthesiser able to synthesise substantial quantities of DNA with any desired sequence. The latter two instruments do not now exist, but they are likely to exist within 10 or 20 years, since they will have great commercial value for medical or pharmaceutical industries, as well as for scientific research.

What use will we make of these domesticated biotechnology kits when they become widespread? Their applications will be at least as novel and diverse as the applications of domesticated computer technology. Domesticated biotechnology will begin with gardens and pets, but will rapidly spread to mines and factories, laboratories and supermarkets. Domesticated biotechnology will mean that many objects of daily life, such as beds and sofas and houses and roads, will be grown rather than manufactured. When teenagers become as fluent in the language of genomes as they are today in the language of blogs, they will be designing and growing all kinds of works of art for fun and profit.

I do not venture to predict what new scientific revolutions will emerge from a mastery of biotechnology. One of the worst things that I can imagine is that medical researchers will find a cure for death. After that, aged immortals will accumulate on this planet and there will be no more room for the young. The normal replacement of each generation by the next will come to an end, and progress in science will stop.

A more hopeful outcome is the design and breeding of radically new microbes and plants and animals adapted to living wild in cold places such as Mars and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. New ecologies adapted to low levels of sunlight could make these alien worlds teem with life. Plants that grow their own greenhouses could generate breathable air and keep the surfaces of these worlds warm, so that they would become hospitable to human settlement.

Evolving evolution

But what impact will all this have on evolution? Carl Woese at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign is the world's greatest expert in the field of microbial taxonomy. He explored the ancestry of microbes by tracing the similarities and differences between their genomes. He discovered the large-scale structure of the tree of life, with all living creatures descended from three primordial branches.

He recently published a provocative and illuminating article with the title "A new biology for a new century" (Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews, vol 68, p 173). Woese's main theme is the obsolescence of reductionist biology as it has been practised for the past 100 years, and the need for a new synthetic biology based on emergent patterns of organisation rather than on genes and molecules. Aside from his main theme, he raises another important question. When did Darwinian evolution begin? By Darwinian evolution he means evolution as Darwin understood it, based on the competition for survival of non-interbreeding species.

He presents evidence that Darwinian evolution did not go back to the beginning of life. Comparing the genomes of ancient lineages of living creatures shows evidence of massive transfers of genetic information from one lineage to another. In early times, horizontal gene transfer, the sharing of genes between unrelated species, was prevalent. It becomes more prevalent the further back you go in time.

Whatever Woese writes, even in a speculative vein, needs to be taken seriously. In his "new biology" article, he is postulating a golden age of pre-Darwinian life, when horizontal gene transfer was universal and separate species did not exist. Life was then a community of cells of various kinds, sharing their genetic information so that clever chemical tricks and catalytic processes invented by one creature could be inherited by all of them. Evolution was a communal affair, the whole community advancing in metabolic and reproductive efficiency as the genes of the most efficient cells were shared. Evolution could be rapid, as new chemical devices could be evolved simultaneously by cells of different kinds working in parallel, and then reassembled in a single cell by horizontal gene transfer.

But then, one evil day, a cell resembling a primitive bacterium happened to find itself one jump ahead of its neighbours in efficiency. That cell separated itself from the community and refused to share. Its offspring became the first species of bacteria, reserving their intellectual property for their own private use. With their superior efficiency, the bacteria continued to prosper and to evolve separately, while the rest of the community continued its communal life. Some millions of years later, another cell separated itself from the community and became the ancestor of the archaea. Some time after that, a third cell separated itself and became the ancestor of the eukaryotes. And so it went on, until nothing was left of the community and all life was divided into species. The Darwinian interlude had begun.

The Darwinian interlude has lasted for 2 or 3 billion years. It probably slowed down the pace of evolution considerably. The basic biochemical machinery of life had evolved rapidly during the few hundreds of millions of years of the pre-Darwinian era, and changed very little in the next two billion years of microbial evolution. Darwinian evolution is slow because individual species once established evolve very little. Darwinian evolution requires established species to become extinct so that new species can replace them.

Now, after three billion years, the Darwinian interlude is over. It was an interlude between two periods of horizontal gene transfer. The epoch of Darwinian evolution based on competition between species ended about 10,000 years ago, when a single species, Homo sapiens, began to dominate and reorganise the biosphere.

Now, as Homo sapiens domesticates the new biotechnology, we are reviving the ancient pre-Darwinian practice of horizontal gene transfer, moving genes easily from microbes to plants and animals, blurring the boundaries between species. We are moving rapidly into the post-Darwinian era, when species will no longer exist, and the rules of "open source" sharing will be extended from the exchange of software to the exchange of genes. Then the evolution of life will once again be communal, as it was in the good old days before separate species and intellectual property were invented.

In conclusion, I would like to borrow Carl Woese's vision of the future of biology and extend it to the whole of science. Woese likens organisms to eddies in a turbulent stream, that reappear no matter how often they are disturbed. He writes: "It is becoming increasingly clear that to understand living systems in any deep sense, we must come to see them not as machines, but as stable, complex, dynamic organisations."

This picture of living creatures as patterns of organisation rather than collections of molecules applies not only to butterflies and rainforests but also to thunderstorms and active galactic nuclei. The non-living universe is as diverse and as dynamic as the living universe, and is also dominated by patterns of organisation that are not yet understood. The reductionist physics and the reductionist molecular biology of the 20th century will continue to be important in the 21st century, but they will not be dominant.

The big problems - the evolution of the universe as a whole, the origin of life, the nature of human consciousness and the evolution of Earth's climate - cannot be understood by reducing them to elementary particles and molecules. New ways of thinking and new ways of organising large databases will be needed.

That is as far as I am able to go. If you want to learn more about the real future of science, the best way is just to stay alive as long as you can and see what happens.

Freeman Dyson is professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. This is an extract from a talk given at the Amazing Light: Visions for Discovery symposium, held at the University of California, Berkeley, in October 2005

From issue 2538 of New Scientist magazine, 11 February 2006, page 36

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