Technology Review 4/22: Hacking the Code of Life Using Synthetic Biology

Synthetic biology could become a key technology of the 21st century. Because scientists around the world no longer observe only biological systems, they directly manipulate them using engineering methods. In doing so, they change the code of life and in a way rewrite it.

With such an elementary shift, it is clear that researchers are facing complex terrain. In the new issue of MIT Technology Review, we explore this field and its opportunities and challenges.

Research teams build tiny biological machines from frog cells. In the nutrient fluid, they learned how to sweep the spherical stem cells into a rounded pile—biological scavengers, as it were. Researchers call their autonomous groups of living cells xenobots and biorobots. But it should not stop with broad tasks: one day, for example, bots should consist of patients’ cells and deliver active substances to the body or collect microplastics in the oceans. But until then there is still a lot to do.

Synthetic biology also involves the use of AI. DeepMind’s AlphaFold AI was able to predict protein folding much better than before – a milestone for research and understanding of the elementary processes of life. Because the three-dimensional structure of proteins determines how they behave in the body and how they interact with each other. However, the structure of many important proteins is still unknown to biologists. Using artificial intelligence to calculate these structures could therefore become an invaluable tool in understanding many diseases, from cancer to mad cow disease – and would greatly accelerate the development of new therapies and vaccines.


Technology overview 4/2022 in the heise shop


Synthetic biology could become a key technology of the 21st century. It provides researchers with the tools to change and rewrite life’s code. The new edition is available from 19.5. in stores and from 18.5. easy to order in heise shop. Highlights from the magazine:

Synthetic biology may still be helpful in medicine. Because until now there were two ways to cure: cutting out what was sick on the operating table – and ideally replacing it. Either turn on or off processes with chemical compounds in the body. With synthetic biology, in the future, drugs could adapt to the situation in the body and even make decisions. Medicines would, so to speak, come to life, and in the case of cancer, they could act like tiny bio-robots directly on tumor cells.

Although many areas are still basic research, the examples show how wide the applications and potential of synthetic biology are. At the same time, this powerful tool also carries risks. Malicious actors could try to create biological weapons or specifically hack the DNA of individuals. “DNA is becoming a security risk,” says futurologist Amy Webb in an interview. She advocates for an international control system that regulates the global pool of genetic data to prevent misuse.

But we also look at new developments in technology and science beyond synthetic biology. This includes, for example, the use of AI software in the application process. This seems to be helpful for companies to find suitable candidates through machine evaluation. But the applicants have also adapted to this situation. There have long been tricks to fool AI and thus secure an invitation to an interview.

Russian soldiers, who stole tractors from Ukraine some time ago, also felt that they had been cheated. They just didn’t want to start. American agricultural machinery manufacturer John Deere has rendered tractors unusable via remote access. However, this simple procedure also reveals new dependencies: farmers are no longer the masters of their machines and the data produced by using them in the fields converges on the company’s platforms.

The new issue 4/2022 of the MIT Technology Review can now be ordered in the heise shop and from 19.5. available at well-stocked kiosks.


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