Crazy ideas for future synthetic biology & bioengineering
Table of Contents
One thing I like about the synthetic biology community is that, from the early days, its participants have been willing to entertain “wild” ideas like building dragons. While this willingness comes with all of the risks associated with building a lot of hype around a nascent technology, against the backdrop of cultural indefinite pessimism, I still prefer it. In that vein, inspired by Milan Cwitkovic’s legendary listicles on Things you’re allowed to do and Market failures in science, I decided to make my own listicle of cool ideas for future synthetic biology & bioengineering projects. If you have additional ideas that you want me add (with credit) don’t hesitate to reach out.
These ideas are currently only organized into two categories: my ideas and those I directly stole from others (with credit given to those people), but if the lists get long enough I may go back and add some intermediate categories.
The criteria I used when deciding whether to include ideas are as follows:
- I believe there are no physical impediments to its eventual development. In other words, it would qualify as a hard sci-fi idea.
- It seems at least a little useful for someone somewhere under a broad definition of “useful” which would include dragons.
- It’s fun. This one was very important.
- If it’s evil, it’s in a mostly harmless way – like building a dragon – rather than a full-on supervillain might use this to actually hurt people way. In particular, I was careful not to include any ideas whose spread might increase biorisk. Frankly, I don’t think I have any of these anyway but if I did I wouldn’t have included them.
- Is it a good business? Although, if you want to make a business out of one of these, definitely let me know.
- Is there a non-biology-based solution? A common refrain for various synthetic biology ideas is, “well couldn’t you just do that with X?” Where X is often chemistry/electronics/etc. This is a good question for someone trying to start a business but a bad one for someone trying to think of cool shit to do with biology. This article is a cool-shit futurists zone, so while cozy futurism may be a valid alternative perspective, it’s not the perspective these ideas are coming from.
These are ideas that I think I came up with but it’s possible I am forgetting that I read them somewhere. If you think this is the case for one of these ideas, please don’t hesitate to ping me and I’ll update to give credit where it’s due.
- AAVs for gene therapy that are amazing transducers, non-immunogenic, tissue/cell type targeted, and can package arbitrarily large genomes. (I had to shill Dyno a little bit. Also not my idea originally but I wanted to put it first…)
- Edited microbes that screen for toxins or just undesirable chemicals in my gut like lithium.
- In vivo bio-logs from engineered mammalian cells that use a souped up version of molecular recording to track health in real time and spit out “reports” once a day (or on some regular cadence) that can be read via cheap (nanopore?) sequencing.
- Biological respirocytes, i.e. improved versions of red blood cells.
- For example, has anyone tried doing directed evolution for oxygen capacity on a red blood cell?
- Engineered versions of mammalian cells with all the retro-transposons removed.
- Optically (?) programmable in vitro enzymatic DNA synthesis on the cheap.
- This may actually be impossible…
- Affordable desktop microfluidics rigs for tinkering with cell programming.
- At home de novo peptide design setup that comes with a nice structure-based and sequence-based design computational toolkit paired with a cell-free (or cell-based) expression chassis that pipes into a generic purification system.
- Desktop protein sequencer.
- Way to grow meat (or spirulina) from raw materials at (or spirulina) home. Imagine if your garden could grow steaks!
- Nasal realtime air purifying microbes. Needs a catchier name than the smellobiome though.
- Fast growing, temperature resistant, reasonable sized fruit plants for all my favorite fruits.
- Culture-style in vivo consciously controlled stimulant glands. (Ok I know now I’m veering off into ridiculously sci-fi ideas.)
- Brain-computer interfaces that can be installed non-invasively by “brick-layer cells” (my term) and dissolved at any time by an opto- or sono-genetic trigger.
These are ideas that others came up with but fit my criteria and so I want to give credit/signal boost them.
- Edited microbes that express vitamins – such as B12 for vegans/vegetarians –people are deficient in and live in your gut (Arye Lipman).
- Plants that can be programmed to synthesize different compounds, e.g. medicine (Arye Lipman).
- Desktop rig for printing mRNA therapeutics (Ryan Bethencourt). It would also be nice if the encapsulating LNPs had tissue-specific settings too…
- Growing houses and other various uses for genetically engineered wood (entire #woodgang crew on Twitter).
- Reviving extinct megafauna such as wooly mammoths (George Church, Stewart Brand, et al.).