BioLogos interim web editor Emily Ruppel recently traveled to Boston for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference, where she took an afternoon off from lecture-going to catch up with Doug Lauffenburger, head of the biological engineering department at MIT and a member of the American Scientific Affiliation. Today and tomorrow, we’ll be featuring their conversation on how biological engineering is likely to influence the fields of technology and medicine in the 21st century.
EMILY RUPPEL: You’ve said that as technology in the 20th century was influenced by chemistry and physics, in the 21st century, it’s going to be influenced by biology. Can you give us a sense of what that future might look like?
DOUG LAUFFENBURGER: It could look like a lot of things. One way to envision what I mean is to put yourself back a hundred years. For instance, in 1913, an electronic computer was unimaginable. But using physics, quantum physics, leading to semiconductors and devices like that, people figured out over the next 20 to 30 years how you could build a machine to do calculations and so forth. And then, of course, all sorts of thing happened…
We’re roughly at that stage with biology, even though it seems like things are more imaginable because—and we don’t have to go strictly century by century here—because we can already guess the way some things might change, whereas in 1913 there was no inkling, really, as to what would happen in the computer revolution.
So, to enumerate some of the things that are conceivable—let’s just start with computers, because we were just there.
There’s a notion that computers get faster and cheaper by making their logic gates smaller, and how you improve a design with physics keeps bumping up against how you make these little units smaller. Well, using biology, the solution seems self-evident—you just line up the pieces of DNA, and if you put the right pieces of DNA in the right places, the resulting parts are so much smaller than the things we can do with physics. You can imagine, even though it’s just a theory now, computers continuing to become many times smaller and cheaper—and be made via environmentally benign manufacturing processes—through biomolecular construction.
Now that’s exciting from one point of view, but from another, it’s not that revolutionary, because you’re just using DNA as a piece of physics. It’s not really biology—it’s merely a biological molecule being used to make better physics.
For a different example, if you think about the way we make things, the way we manufacture plastics, gasoline, energy—we have to do all that using chemistry, and to make that chemistry happen, we have to input a lot of energy—in fact, one of the most costly industries in terms of energy usage is the energy industry. You have to put in so much energy to refine petroleum and things like that. And to make plastics, ceramics—things of that nature—is also very energy intensive, and it’s also where a lot of pollution comes from, because you’re mixing together all these chemicals that really didn’t want to be mixed together. You get what you want, but you get a lot of byproducts, toxins, etc.
Well, people have started to realize that a lot of this work can be redone through the use of biology. You can turn corn into fuel or plastic, and you can make magnetic or electrical storage devices out of biological units (viruses can pattern the crystals, so instead of using mixtures of toxic chemicals, you just pull the viruses with the right properties together). Right on this tabletop, you could make materials that by current manufacturing processes would otherwise cause a great amount of environmental hazard.
As for another exciting development—well, to preface, one of the problematic things about modern agriculture is the necessity of using fertilizers (there are insecticides to be concerned about, too), but fertilizer manufacturing is terrible for the environment. You have to make fertilizer out of ammonia and that’s a horribly polluting and energy-intensive manufacturing process. What you could potentially do, instead, is program into bacteria the genes that take nitrogen out of air, turning it into organic nitrogen then just scatter the bacteria onto the field—and you wouldn’t need to make ammonium using the current very caustic processes.
These are the sorts of things I mean—and we haven’t even touched on medicine, yet. People tend to think about medicinal advances, first, but before you even get to medicine, you can think about energy, manufacturing, materials, and agriculture. In 50 years, we should be able to do things in ways we don’t do them now, that will be cheaper, less toxic, less polluting, more efficient, and so forth.
ER: A lot of people are nervous about the idea of “programming” life. Can you respond to this fear as a Christian?
DL: As a Christian, I would say that God gave humankind dominion over the earth, to do good things—he gave us minds, a passion for understanding how things work, and then he put in this world all these fascinating processes, which, if we figured them out, we could do good things, could feed more people—could feed more people without causing extensive damage to the environment. And cure disease and injury. And the list goes on. I think all that is good, and that God would be pleased that we would be using His creation to live better—I’m not saying more luxuriously, but more happily, contentedly, with each other.
ER: But back to the topic—advances using biology in the next century. You had just mentioned medicine…
DL: So, yes, there’s also medicine. Now, obviously, in thinking about this, the use of stem cells comes to immediately the fore. There are a lot of diseases out there that you really do need to correct using cellular processes. Right now, we try to make these corrections through chemistry. For instance, we give you a pill, and that pill should interfere with something that’s going wrong in your body—and yet it’s really never adequate to just interfere with something that goes wrong in the body, because you don’t really set it right just by getting in the way of it.
The opportunity with stem cells is that you can say, “I’ll replace the cells in the body that are doing something wrong with cells that are actually doing it right again.” If you program cells to be neurons, heart cells, or bone cells, you can regenerate properly functioning physiology. Rather than, say, replacing a hip with a metal part, you could regenerate the bone, itself, or you could regenerate neurons in Alzheimer’s patients. Never in the past has medicine been able to regenerate a proper physiology; it’s only tried to replace it with an inadequate surrogate, or minimize how much damage a disease is doing. With the use of stem cells, you can actually imagine returning the body to its proper physiology.
A different use of stem cells is to generate human tissue in the laboratory for better studies of human physiology and pathology and improved testing of drug effectiveness and toxicity. This will be a major advance over animal models, because of the significant disparities between animal physiology and human physiology.
A key point to emphasize is that there are different kinds of stem cells, which involve big differences in potential concerns. For Christians, clearly, stem cells derived from embryos present a tremendous ethical issue. Fortunately, a good proportion of stem cell technologies can be pursued using stem cells from adult tissue. These cells can be stimulated to develop into certain tissue-specific physiological behavior, or can now even be “re-programmed” to become quite similar to the more broadly flexible stem cells derived from embryos but now not requiring the embryonic source. Happily, the days of reliance on embryo-derived stem cells appear to be over for purposes of beneficial technologies.
We also should consider genomic medicine, and what’s attractive about that field is that with the way we do medicine now, which is chemistry-based—say you have a disease, and we might give you a pill to correct it—well, the biggest problem with that is that while I think this pill will help ameliorate your condition, maybe it won’t. Maybe that drug only works in ten percent of the patients and not ninety percent.
For example, consider cancer. You’ve got a particular kind of cancer, and we prescribe a certain treatment… well, hopefully you’re among the lucky ten percent, and you’ll be in much better shape in two or three years. If you’re not, then we’ve wasted your time. In fact, we’ve probably hurt you rather than helped you, because we’re using chemistry to interfere with things, and even though we might be reducing the damage of some things, we’re probably causing toxicity elsewhere in the system, because that same chemistry is also interfering over there.
So the value of genomic medicine is to get enough information about you through sequencing your genome that we can say, “Ah, for you this particular pill is not a good idea; it will actually do more damage than good. But for your brother, it’s likely to work, and the ratio of benefit to harm is much better.” This is the reason genomic medicine is more imminent—it’s what’s closest on the horizon to being realized—because we can use the same drugs we have now, we’ll just be using them more effectively. At the moment, we can sequence genomes, and we do have these treatments that help, and it’s just a matter of matching up these two technologies.
Now, on the other hand, when you think about genome sequencing, you can find out all sorts of things, and you have to decide, “What if I learn something negative?”