Do-It-Yourself Bioengineering



Frog genes meet lilypad genes in my biological stew of a pond

Do not miss physicist Freeman Dyson’s fantastically cheerful and playful piece in The New York Review of Books, in which he speculates that bioengineering will soon be domesticated the same way computing power was domesticated in the 1980’s.  Someday soon, Dyson speculates, kids will put down their Nintendos in order to play bioengineering games with eggs and seeds. 

Of course, if you’re not an old man whose children left home half a century ago, this may not seem like such an appealing prospect. I plan on asking all my friends and relatives NOT to buy my nine year-olds bioengineering kits for Christmas, mainly because I do not relish the idea of them siccing griffins on each other.

Dyson of course acknowledges that a future in which genomes are meddled with routinely will have its dangers–but argues that such meddling may begin to seem more benign, if it’s no longer practiced only by the Snidely Whiplashes at Monsanto, but instead by every backyard breeder. 

As Dyson sees it, the potential of this bioengineering is not just better plants and animals in the sense that we understand agricultural improvements today–hardier, stronger, tastier, more beautiful–but organisms that can solve many of the world’s ecological problems.  Plants with silicon leaves that can absorb sunlight and convert it to clean energy for our use.  Termites that can break down junked cars. 

Of course, some of stuff is already taking place.  Last year, I ran across the work of MIT scientist Angela Belcher, who is turning nature into a factory for machines–using viruses, for example, to assemble parts for lighter, more efficient batteries. 

What’s more, Dyson believes that the new industries that will arise out of bioengineering will require little besides sunshine and land, and so may help produce thriving economies in now-hopeless places characterized by rural poverty.  Cheerful thought.

Enough about plants with silicon leaves, however.  I know precisely what I’d be engineering if I had one of those nifty Gardener’s Supply-brand biotech kits of the future in my hands right now.  I’d be putting penguin genes into tomatoes, eggplants and zucchini, making vegetables that would taste as full of sunshine as the ones I ate in Naples last month–but that would grow so well in cold weather, they’d be on my table right now and not three weeks from now. 

What would you engineer if you could?


  1. “bioengineering will soon be domesticated the same way computing power was domesticated in the 1980’s”

    Really? When was the last time your kids, or your neighbor’s kids, wrote the code for a computer OS, from scratch? Or even one lousy little working macro in MS Word? Pushing keys on a computer is not the same as programming.

    I really wish so-called scientists would not engage in these kinds of predictions. It sets everybody up to believe technological directions like these are totally harmless and require no oversight. Hey, backyard bioengineering! What could be simpler, or safer?

    In reality, any software developer knows that if you tinker with code, if you alter one thing, you are probably going to break something else. That’s why software companies have whole teams of QA engineers who test like mad ferrets until the program is released — and even then they don’t catch all the bugs.

    If I could engineer things, I’d go for humans who understand that they shouldn’t tinker with spheres bigger than themselves unless they test like crazy and they’re prepared to properly manage the unfortunate results.

  2. I’d bioengineer goutweed to devour itself, until it was all gone–forever. Or to transmogrify itself into ripe tomatoes. Hey, a girl can dream, after all…

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