Sunday, October 31, 2010

Synbio in space

Many interesting applications of synthetic biology in space missions were discussed at the Synthetic Biology workshop held October 30-31, 2010 at NASA Ames in conjunction with the National Academies Keck Futures Initiative. Scientists from a variety of backgrounds came together to brainstorm solutions in an integrative approach. The most impressive aspect was how different areas of synthetic biology have been progressing enough to discuss ideas and techniques that could be applied to space missions in a robust way.

Environment enhancement
One of the most important areas that synthetic biology may be able to help with is in making space environments more manageable and habitable by humans. The regolith, the powdery blanket covering the moon and Mars, may likely need to be ameliorated into harder less dusty surfaces.

Synthetic biology could be helpful in creating microbes to faster weather regolith/rock for an order of magnitude quicker release of bioessential elements such as Magnesium, Calcium, Potassium, and Iron. (related publications)

Biomaterials and self-building habitats
Synthetic biology could help to create microbes for use in building structures, both as scaffolds and by growing on scaffolds. Bacterially-generated alternatives to Portland cement (bricks made from bacteria, sand, calcium chloride, and urea) are currently being investigated, along with other plant-development inspired architectures.

New gene function
While the discovery of new mammalian genes has become saturated, the majority of newly sequenced ocean-based microbes continue to have novel gene functions. Some of these may be quite useful in space environments, for example, D. radiodurans, which can withstand significant radiation and rebuild its DNA when damaged.

Space economics – the Basalt Economy
The economics of space suggest that synthetic biological solutions might be developed more readily for space challenges, and later deployed on Earth as the technologies mature. The main constraint for space is developing in-situ solutions that are cheaper than lifting materials from Earth, as opposed to creating competitive products for Earth-based supply chains (e.g.; synthetic biofuel).

Whole human genome and metabiome sequencing, genome synthesis and assembly, and genetic design and proofing software (bioCAD) as shown in Figure 1 are all improving. A vast industry similar to that of semiconductor design and manufacture could likely develop for synthetic biology.

Figure 1: Example of SLIC/Gibson/CPEC gene sequence assembly (Source)

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Future of fashion

A new idea, spray-painted clothing, joins digital textile printing and 3-D printed clothing as a possible tool for creating the future of fashion.

Spanish fashion designer Manel Torres, working together with scientists from University College London, has developed spray-on fabric (Figure 1). Short fibers of wool, linen or acrylic are mixed with a polymer solvent which binds immediately as they are sprayed onto a person or mannequin.

Figure 1: Spray-on Fabric developed by designed Manel Torres (Source)

Clothing made from spray-on fabric was presented at the Science in Style fashion show, September 21, 2010 in London (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Science in Style, London, September 21, 2010 (Source)

There are many speculations about the wide range of potential applications for spray-on fabric. Some of the obvious ideas for on-demand fabric are sterile bandages and military and crisis relief use. Practical uses are interesting too. For example, to the extent the material is recyclable and cost-effective, being able to spray-on additional layers when feeling cold, and easily remove and discard them when hot could be quite convenient. Rain gear could be similarly donned and discarded. The long-expected futurist’s dream of on-demand 3D clothing printing booths could be closer to being realized.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Phase transition in intelligence

There could be at least three approaches to the long-term future of intelligence: engineering life into technology, simulated intelligence, and artificial intelligence. Further, while the story of evolutionary history is the domination of one form of intelligence, the future could hold ecosystems with multiple kinds of intelligence, particular specialized by purpose/task.

There are significant technical hurdles in executing simulated intelligence and artificial intelligence, but the areas have been progressing in Moore’s Law fashion. The engineering of life into technology will need to proceed expediently to keep pace with technological advance, and tie a lot of wetware loose ends together.

At present, the mutation rate of genetic replication puts an upward bound on how complex biological organisms can be. The human cannot be more than about 10x as complex as Drosophila (the fruit fly), for example. However, if the error rate in the genetic replication machinery could be improved, maybe it would be possible to have organisms 10x more complex than humans, and so on, and so on…

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Consumer genomic testing update

In the wake of expected industry-wide regulation of consumer genomic testing, two of the big four testing companies, Navigenics and Pathway Genomics, have pulled their direct-to-consumer offerings in the last few months. Now a doctor must order their tests.

23andMe and deCODEme still have consumer genomic tests available, covering 174 conditions for $429 and 49 conditions for $2,000, respectively (Figure 1). Sooner rather than later could be a good time to sign up for a genomic service, possibly using year-end HSA dollars.

Figure 1. Landscape of direct-to-consumer genomic testing services.

The potential industry-wide regulation is in regard to two issues, one is whether a physician must order the tests, and two, whether companies should be able to publish their interpretations of the results.

The DIYgenomics website lists two online petitions in support of rights to one's own genetic data:

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Hardware apps (smartphone peripherals)

Apps are not just software anymore! The interesting new field of hardware apps, or smartphone peripherals, is under development.

One example is the iPhly iPhone-based radio controller. Radar detectors and dashboard car-surveillance cams could follow. Earthquake sensors are another obvious application, as accelerometer chips for sensing earthquakes have already been used in laptops.

Miniaturized modules could snap onto smartphones for many different applications. Scientific instruments could be an interesting application area, giving any individual the opportunity to have a mobile lab. Ultrasound and portable microscopes have already been demonstrated (iPhone attachment, cell phone attachment).

Portable personal sensing modules for biodefense (iPhone biodefense app spec) and health optimization could be a killer app. Microneedle arrays could continuously or periodically perform a sampling of hundreds of blood-based data points like Orsense does for continuous glucose monitoring. Mass spectrometer attachments could identify any substance chemically. Miniaturized genome sequencers and RNA sequencers could identify the underlying DNA and expression profiles of samples.