Tom Knight, founding director of BioBricks, was pulled away from computer science and into synthetic biology after becoming fascinated by cell division and data storage.
Speaking at the Economist’s Technology Frontiers conference, he explained how he used to work in computer science, exploring artificial intelligence, integrated circuit design and programming around the time when the web was emerging. However 15-20 years ago, he decided that “biology would be the next important thing that would change the world as we know it”.
Knight was inspired by seeing cell division of bacteria through transmission electron microscopy, a property of living systems which “from the standpoint of an engineer like myself is rather surprising and remarkable”. He added: “There are some profound implications. We don’t have physical objects that we engineer that reproduce themselves. OK, so maybe computer viruses, but physical objects such as buildings and microprocessors don’t have the property that they reproduce themselves.”
In addition to this reproduction, Knight was fascinated by the storage capacity of cells. E Coli, for example, has around four million base pairs of DNA. “That’s one megabyte of information stored in a region of a micron in each dimension.”
“That storage density is somewhere in the vicinity of 10^7 or 10^8 times higher than the very best disk drives, USB sticks or any other semi conductor technology we can build today. That’s another reason why a computer jerk like me should be interested in cells. I can store more information that way than with any of the technology I have available,” Knight said.
He added that he was also fascinated by catabolism and anabolism — biochemical processes that take place in living organisms, building things up and breaking them down, to maintain life. He draws parallels between anabolic processes and manufacturing, drawing on a finite core of building materials and referring to a “blueprint” to create things. “Biology does this in an incredibly precise way; in a way that allows us to specify with the genome exactly what’s going to be produced.”
“We have very little ability to put atoms exactly where we want them. Semiconductor engineers don’t get to put atoms where we want them. Biology puts every atom in the place it wants with precise control. We can use that as a very powerful manufacturing technology.”
This line of thinking led him to the development of BioBricks — genetic sequences which have been standardised like electronic components. These Lego-like BioBricks have various functions and can be plugged into each other to create entirely new biological systems in microorganisms. As explained in our article from September 2012, BioBricks can be used to transform bacteria into machines for sensing and degrading pollutants. One tool measures arsenic levels in water — you add the bacteria to a bottle wait over night and “if it turns red, you have a problem”. This replaces the need for expensive laboratory tests.
So far 10,000 of these BIoBricks have been standardised. You can find out more at BioBricks.org.