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Biotechnology is a big keyword in the industry right now, like computing was a bunch of years ago. Nowadays, anyone can pop up a terminal and start tinkering with their computer, program software, make anything from their imagination true in the virtual world. A similar trend is observable with objects and the growth of fab labs all over the world.

Will this happen with biology and how soon? At what point in our near future will we see kids play with molecules and DNA and life?

This question is NOT meant to encompass what such tinkering might result in.

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    $\begingroup$ Could you clarify by what you mean by "playing with molecules and DNA and life?" There are several different meanings, which I would approach very differently. There's a tremendous difference between "downregulate melanin production in my eyes to change them from brown to green for a while" to "permanently make my eyes green" to "Change my eggs/sperm such that all my future children have green eyes" to "Design a new protien from scratch which makes purple eyes without any unintended side effects." Some of this can already be done, others are a real challenge. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon - Reinstate Monica Nov 23 '14 at 19:30
  • $\begingroup$ I guess I meant all of these. Hadn't thought it too far. Good examples of what I had in mind were mentionned here: worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/a/4443/90. But I'd be interested in a timeline for everything you mentioned basically :-) $\endgroup$ – Sheraff Nov 23 '14 at 19:35
  • $\begingroup$ This feels related: mitadmissions.org/blogs/entry/… $\endgroup$ – Sheraff Oct 19 '15 at 10:37
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Although my answer is surely opinion-based, I think the answer is: probably never. The reason is, that if you would like to compare human and animal genetic code to a computer code, it would look like 0 % of logic and structure and hundreds of millions years of debugging. This is how evolution works: random mutations are created and if they are useful, they spread. Computer programming can also by done this way with use of genetic algorithms. The results are often effective, but completely incomprehensible to humans.

Already today, we can insert almost any DNA we wish into a cell. One could write DNA as a long series of letters and we would be able to synthesize it. The problem is not in the technology, but that we do not know what it will do. Since it is so hard to understand the DNA code, fine changes will probably always require extensive amount of research and experiments. The code is just too messy to change it so simply.

If all animals are "very poorly written", we might ask how close are we to writing animals from scratch. It also seems very, very problematic. Unlike life, our software is very hierarchic. Higher level of programming relies on precise translation into assembler-like processor instructions, which rely on processors performing very precisely many simple tasks. Even processor is basically a simple part - transistor - copied many many times into very precise structure. Each level works perfectly and can be completely separated from the next. This allows us to understand it and write software efficiently. Basic units of life - proteins, are much more messy. They do not by any way work so cleanly as transistors and one probably needs much more trials and errors to persuade the whole machinery of proteins to work as intended, cooperating with other proteins. My estimate is that we could still need hundreds of years to find a way around it.

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    $\begingroup$ I disagree. Yes, it is complicated, but it is a finite block of code, so eventually we should be able to decipher and understand it. Also, if you want to write completely new organisms, you just need to understand enough of the original code to not kill the cell you're injecting the code into, and understand the principles well enough to build your new code. Just because the only available programs are terrible hacks does not mean that you cannot write new programs that aren't. $\endgroup$ – celtschk Nov 22 '14 at 16:01
  • $\begingroup$ I agree that we will be able to understand selected problems and any intended change could probably be done given sufficient resources and time. I was answering to question "How soon will tinkering with biology be as simple as programming?". To this, I say probably never: since the source code of animals and humans is very poorly written. It is not problem of technology, rather every change will present a new challenge to be cracked. I also extended my answer a bit to address the question of writing life from scratch you raised. $\endgroup$ – Irigi Nov 22 '14 at 19:47
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    $\begingroup$ I start to wonder if you maybe underestimate programming. Tinkering with genomes directly is about the level of assembly programming; I'd certainly expect advanced biotinkerers to have tools similar to our compilers, with programmed-in data about the inner working of the organisms they target. And you definitely underestimate the complexity of processors. I'm pretty sure there's not a single person who understands a current processor at the transistor level (and in those dimensions, knowing which transistor connects to which other is far from sufficient for characterizing the functionality!) $\endgroup$ – celtschk Nov 22 '14 at 20:00
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    $\begingroup$ What you are talking about is not "assembly programming" but "disassembly." You are talking about taking the spaghetti code built over millions of years, and trying to pick apart what sections make a hand vs. what sections make a foot. In reality, those divisons are a lot more fuzzy. If you talk with anyone who works in assembly, the first step is you MUST understand what conventions they used, or the assembly is unreadable. Nature does not use conventions, as far as we have been able to decypher. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon - Reinstate Monica Nov 22 '14 at 20:52
  • $\begingroup$ I am trying to point out that having compilers requires the underlying level of assembler to work flawlessly according to small set o rules. Without this, how would the compiler work? Processors are incredibly complex no doubt. Yet they are strongly based on few simple rules, which I do no think is the case of biological systems. This structure allows easy understanding and makes work easy. These ideas mostly come from excellent book The Pattern on the Stone by W. Daniel Hillis, which I can really recommend on this topic. $\endgroup$ – Irigi Nov 22 '14 at 21:25
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The question is really hard to answer, because of stem cell controversy wherepeople of religion object against using human embryos for purpose of science.

Even though you left out the thinking about end results of everyone being able to play around with live organisms, the real spread will be built around of "what possibilities does this bring us"

For instance, while it holds true that you are able to buy computer and write your first Hello World program, in case of "lab science" it is still sufficient enough to let you do little lab play with discovering flower cells and if you feel like want to know more, there is specialised school to learn you that.

Also, computer in every household appears because it solves more than one problem of "general household" (while "playing games" might be one of them).

Long story short, even if the general public is supporting strongly the DNA tinkering, I still believe that device to play around with DNA will be part rather of "high school lab" than common household. (So, it will never reach common household).

To guess the time, I think plausible horisont to think of is 20 to 50 years.

But keep in mind, that no matter how cool the device or technology may sound on the paper, always the general public may be against it.

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  • $\begingroup$ I think the first sentence (and the last sentence) sum(s) up the argument perfectly, although I would be curious to see a conservative religious person's perspective on the matter. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Nov 22 '14 at 20:11
  • $\begingroup$ I had once a discussion with religious person regarding it and will try to sum up the arguments: 1) God is creator of all life 2) Only God is allowed to take away life 3) Embryo is life - therefore, you are not allowed to "kill" it since you are not God $\endgroup$ – Pavel Janicek Nov 23 '14 at 15:29
  • $\begingroup$ I figured it would go something like that. (Sigh) $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Nov 23 '14 at 15:32
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It will not be long before we choose to use the power of DNA and biology to help us do computations (DNA based computers exist today). However, it will be a LONG time before we are comfortable mucking with existing biology because the "source code" is just too mind-numbingly difficult to understand.

We've been evolving for millions of years. "Readability of the genome" has never once been selected for (in fact, it might have even been selected against). All human code written has had "readability" as a major concern, so we design our products differently. For example, there is a meme in programming "goto considered harmful," because it makes things hard to read. There's also a philosophy to do minimize thread interactions because they are hard to follow. Nature's product uses "goto" everywhere, and the best analogy for cellular behavior would involve millions of interacting threads. Many of our quirky shapes and features are actually a result of "shared code" which mutated to be beneficial for a completely different purpose.

I like to believe we will have some power over biology at some point in our race's future. However, I do not believe that power will have a strong resemblance to today's programming. I expect it will look far more subtle.

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Genetic engineering technology already allows us to manipulate the genomes of several model organisms with extreme precision. Homologous recombination in yeast enables researcher's to change virtually any sequence in the genome to whatever they want, and now the CRISPR/Cas9 system being developed shows enormous promise for use in more complicated multicellular organisms. Current genetic research commonly involves deleting DNA sequences, inserting DNA sequences, fusing genes together, and really anything you can imagine doing to a genetic sequence to figure out how it works. Now that isn't to say it's easy. There are time-consuming precise protocols that have to be followed that don't always work. It takes the resources of a modern lab, a fair amount of money, and a lot of expertise. For a kid to ever be able to do it the entire process would need to be automated by a machine. Some extremely well-funded labs have robotics that are capable of automating some processes, but we are a long way off from some sort of all-in-one genetic engineering personal device.

While it may be possible in the future to quickly and cheaply manipulate the genome of an organism, the larger barrier to actually making something you want is knowing what to change. We really don't understand the purpose of most of DNA in our genomes. Our current research typically involves breaking something, seeing what happens, and then coming up with a model for what that thing was doing. We are a long way off from being able to make purposeful changes to generate custom organisms.

In my opinion the biotech revolution you envision will likely need to be proceeded by a computing revolution. To actually get a complete model of how genomes work we need powerful computational models for protein structure and function prediction as well as for simulating all of the interconnected regulatory networks governing all of these proteins.

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100,000 years from now? 1,000,000,000 years from now? Never?

There are many arguments against this ever happening, and even more arguments why this will never happen any time soon, unless we invoke science fantasy and also rapid moves towards utopian social improvements at the rate of, say, the Star Trek timeline. AFAIK Star Trek doesn't have this level of technology (nor of childhood trust).

Consider:

  • Messing with your body is dangerous so until and unless we also have resurrection technology, it would be irresponsible to invite the general public to play with genetic manipulation.

  • Genetic manipulation is dangerous to all life especially since in order to change an organism's DNA in a systematic way, it needs a powerful spreading mechanism, and DNA also naturally mutates. This is why it is a very bad idea to let for-profit corporations actually release GMO crops, let alone to feed them to everyone, and to not label them. For example, GMO plants spread their seeds into the environment where they end up spreading into other fields and corrupting them into GMO plants and new GMO varieties, reducing non-GMO plants. When these companies also intentionally design food crops to not be able to generate seed, to contain massive pesticide levels, etc, they're just asking for something to go wrong, potentially irreversibly. Letting Junior mess with DNA is a bad idea, and your future society is going to have a bad time.

  • The analogy that DNA is like program code is theoretical and metaphorical more than it is literal and practical. Messing with DNA in seeds until you get some positive effects is the programming equivalent of randomly playing with someone else's machine code, like this: enter image description here Except THAT is a very concise, logically-written and small program, so something with massive number of pages of that, and written randomly by nature, with most of the code apparently doing nothing but possibly doing something, and no linear execution, since some of it may be the part (or part of a part of a part of a system) that starts having George Lemuelson's chin hair turn grey at age 48 while reducing his libido 5%, and increasing his chance of gaining diabetes-A by 5%. And you can only cut and paste it in chunks, exchanging chunks from other versions of the same program. Your only hope is that the chunks you have to cut and paste come from other programs which have been designed to be cut & pasted and recombined. But unfortunately, many of these combinations may be infertile or lethal or cancerous, which is why GMO is done in labs where you can throw away almost all of your many many failures. Which you don't want Junior doing on himself, unless you want him to die.

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  • $\begingroup$ I disagree with your point that "genetic manipulation is dangerous to all life". Bacteria and viruses mutate all the time in nature and still only few of them are really deadly. And they are those, who have evolved to efficiently trick our immunity system and out-competed it. It seems quite implausible to me that GMO would randomly mutate into something that is really harmful, particularly if the modified organism is not parasite or disease, but crop. It seems to me almost like saying that breeding dogs is very dangerous, because you change dog's DNA in the process. $\endgroup$ – Irigi Nov 25 '14 at 13:47
  • $\begingroup$ @Ingi Natural mutation is one thing. GMO is quite another. GMO is not just accelerated breeding and selection, but engineering specific removals and additions, and can include cross-species DNA insertions. For example, DNA from insecticidal bacteria in food. Some are also designed to make seeds infertile so Monsanto can make farmers dependent on buying seed from Monsanto and unable to re-plant from seed. Crops DNA spreads to other fields and there is less and less GMO-free crops... $\endgroup$ – Dronz Nov 25 '14 at 18:12
  • $\begingroup$ ... So we can end up with more and more crops with interesting properties spreading uncontrolled, including more and more pesticide and sabotage features, and less biodiversity. This unbalances the other species in the whole food chain, and the insects eat the crops and die off, birds eat the insects, etc. And so we see massive bee die-offs and related side-effects, and the rise of new insecticide-resistant insects, to which Monsanto suggests GMO crops contain even more pesticide. Meanwhile, suddenly people seem to become "gluten"-intollerant where none were before, etc. $\endgroup$ – Dronz Nov 25 '14 at 18:16
  • $\begingroup$ I agree with some of your points, I just do not see how they show that "GM is dangerous to all life". Most of the examples seem rather to show that "we should be more careful and do more tests before we deploy GMO". The GM crops could unbalance ecosystem - but isn't it the same what we did when we were planting crops instead of forests and grasslands during the colonization, spreading species across continents? Less biodiversity would also happen if we decided to plant spruce monocultures, for instance. So the mistake seems to be in creating monocultures rather than the GMOs themselves. $\endgroup$ – Irigi Nov 26 '14 at 10:29
  • $\begingroup$ @Ingi No it's not at all the same as converting forests/grasslands to crops (which is bad enough). GMO crops cross-polinate with natural plants not even in the crop, and add GMO DNA from other species which would never have been in the natural plants, which starts being spread by migratory birds all over the planet, until eventually most non-GMO species might no longer exist. At this point the "we should have done more testing - oops the retrovirus elements we use are causing genetic contamination in animals too" might be way too late... and... $\endgroup$ – Dronz Nov 26 '14 at 17:07

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