Say we're in a world where it is possible to tinker with biology as easily as it is to tinker with programming nowadays. For feasibility, refer to How soon will tinkering with biology be as simple as programming is now?

Now computers answer many needs such as work, play, information, communication... Would there be any scenarios where such machine — a machine that is to biology what computers are to programming — would be desired in every house? And if not, how widespread would such a technology get?

  • $\begingroup$ Does it tinker with existing live organisms? $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Nov 22 '14 at 23:58
  • $\begingroup$ I don't know, it feels like it's a very different level of both technology and implications. I'd be very interested in answers for both, but I fear it will be considered too broad. $\endgroup$ – Sheraff Nov 23 '14 at 0:05
  • $\begingroup$ Can I throw "likely" out the window here? $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Nov 23 '14 at 0:23
  • $\begingroup$ Well you did already, didn't you ;) I do like your answers but no, I'm looking for actually plausible solutions, even if it implies reducing the widespreadness. $\endgroup$ – Sheraff Nov 23 '14 at 0:26
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    $\begingroup$ I noticed a while ago that DNA sequencing and sequence construction machines were being sold in magazines like Scientific American, with standard one-page glossy adverts ("For all your sequencing needs!"). They have snappy names, like mobile phones - e.g. "NextSeq500". The move from lab-built-prototypes to off-the-shelf industrial machinery has already happened . . . $\endgroup$ – Neil Slater Nov 23 '14 at 10:54

Sure! Imagine a home device that lets you create a self-replicating solar or sugar powered autonomous intelligent mobile life form capable programmed to do exactly what you want? Customize your food, customize a pet, make a wasp that will hunt down that annoying fly in your room. The only limit is your imagination. I think it would have a lot of the same appeal as programming for yourself and 3D printing for yourself. Of course all this would require some pretty impressive tech behind it, but assuming it's there I think people would love the kind of creativity and power that such a device would provide.

Here are some more examples of various uses I could foresee people using.

Food: Customize the flavor profile, texture, and nutritional content of any plant, animal, or other organism. Also, synthesis of virtually any organic compound.

Pets: Customize the size, shape, color, and behavior of your own completely unique pet.

Art: Living art. Slime molds that sculpt themselves and other living, thinking, responsive art.

Gardening: Related to art, imagine making your own flowers and other decorative plants. Any color and any pattern you can imagine. You can also customize animals to maintain your garden for you, kill any weeds or pests that show up, while watering and fertilizing.

Cleaning: Keep your house clean with patrolling insects that dust and mop and automatically clean up any spills, (and of course keep out of sight while you are looking.)

Hygiene: We have trillions of bacteria living inside of us and on us. Imagine a strain that will help whiten your teeth instead of yellowing it and give you nice breath while it's at it. A living perfume or antiperspirant would be a great replacement for our stinky armpits cultures. Even living makeup would be possible.

Pest control: with all this rampant engineering some people are bound to make mistakes or play pranks. Unwanted organisms from the next door neighbor might be annoying and how else are you going to get rid of them but with organisms of your own?

Communication: What better way to get a message out than with a mobile self-replicating living billboard? Something as simple as a pigeon with a company's logo or an anarchy symbol.

These ideas would require an incredibly complete knowledge of how organisms work. But with that knowledge I see no reason why any of these possibilities are impossible. With complete control over the DNA sequence and a complete knowledge of what changes to that sequence will do the possibilities are endless.

  • $\begingroup$ Could you develop these examples? They are exactly along the lines of what I was asking for! $\endgroup$ – Sheraff Nov 23 '14 at 1:58
  • $\begingroup$ This is a very cool answer! Now I can imagine it :-) But I guess a follow up would be "why would people want to manufacture these at home and not buy them off the shelf?" $\endgroup$ – Sheraff Nov 23 '14 at 4:06
  • $\begingroup$ I think its analogous to modern programming. Why would people write code at home and not buy it off the shelf? The vast majority of code each of us use everyday was written by someone else. But there are many reasons why people also write their own. Sometimes you just want a very specific thing that no one else has ever made. Sometimes it's because the programmer just enjoys programming and creating things. Not everyone in today's society is a programmer, and maybe not everyone in a future society will want to make their own organisms, but I think there are enough applications that many will. $\endgroup$ – Mike Nichols Nov 23 '14 at 4:28
  • $\begingroup$ Yes but to use software off the shelf, you need a computer. Therefore there is already a computer in every home. To use a GMO plant, you don't need a gene lab! $\endgroup$ – Sheraff Nov 23 '14 at 12:06
  • $\begingroup$ You're right, while GMOs might be in every household the machines for making them wouldn't need to be. If you want the machines to be ubiquitous then you need a cultural explanation. $\endgroup$ – Mike Nichols Nov 23 '14 at 17:21

This is my favorite question in a while, so I hope it's okay if I bend a slight rule in order to answer it. The question explicitly says "likely", so chances are my answer is completely invalid. I don't think there's much of a chance this would become likely anytime soon without some drastic change in the world. It goes completely against the question, but I'll explore some relatively un-likely scenarios.

I'm in a rare creative mood, so here's a bunch of weird, wacky and completely (un-)likely scenarios:

  • Cockfights on steroids. I'm strongly against this kind of thing, and I'm fairly surprised it came to mind. Imagine underground, illegal leagues where animals are put together to fight it out. If you had these tinkering machines, you could change the DNA of your fighting creature in question to make it better. You could modify the creature over many generations. Selective breeding goes out the window.
  • Rampant, constantly changing diseases. Let's say you've got a world that's stricken with a plague that continually changes its structure, so it's nearly impossible for an organism to fight it. Perhaps you could use this machine (note: you probably couldn't) to modify your white blood cells (or at least their centers of production) to better fight off this illness. This assumes really poor medical care.
  • Weather is highly variable. If you have rapidly changing weather that goes from one extreme to another, it's going to be hard for farmers to grow anything. The solution: use this thing to make minor variations to the DNA of certain crops that make them resistant to different conditions, such as plentiful water or droughts, or hot and cold swings. Make different crops immune to different conditions, and plant them all.
  • Rapidly changing fashion trends. Well, fashion is important (sadly) in our society, too. But let's say it changes soon here. What do you do if your (genetically modified) purple hair become uncool? Change some genes to make your hair pink or green. Don't like your eye color? Change the genes for that, too.
  • Scientists are needed. Need a bunch of scientists? Inspire the kids early with this machine. Use it to inspire them by showing them the wonders of genetics. There's nothing like an amazing effect to inspire someone to do something. There are plenty of things to inspire people to go into science, but bringing the previously seemingly-abstract field of genetics right into people's houses would really inspire them.

More to be added whenever they pop into my head. It's just going to be a fun little list.

Note: Pretty much all of these things are highly unlikely. I'm taking a short break from science. It's quite relaxing.

Edit: You really need circumstances where this device must be widespread. Here are some:

  • Back to diseases. I'll go back to my idea about diseases. Imagine a world where people are not densely populated. There's virtually no infrastructure, so it's difficult for people to gather. At the same time, there's a highly infectious and deadly disease that's constantly spreading (because people are so far apart, I'll imagine it's airborne). It constantly mutates, so people have a very tough time fighting it off. What do you do?

    Our bodies fight diseases with antibodies. These are proteins produced by plasma cells (which are produced in bone marrow) that latch on to certain proteins in an invader cell and help to destroy it. However, they are only useful against a certain version of a certain disease. In this world, that's a problem. The solution would be to use this machine to constantly alter bone marrow, producing different plasma cells to create different antibodies to fight different versions of the disease.

  • A changing atmosphere. What if the world's atmosphere is constantly changing? This would throw anyone's respiratory system into total chaos. How would a species survive? Once again, this machine would come in handy. Simply use it to modify some cells in the respiratory system that make the system able to process slightly different gases - for example, processing gas $XY_6$ instead of $XY_5$. If there are these constant changes in the atmosphere, the species could need this machine to survive.

    That - and some of the other ideas I've put forward - of course raises the question of how the species survived in the past. Perhaps there was some event (meteor, volcano, etc.) that changed the gases available for circulation in the planet's atmosphere, thus making it less stable. Unlikely but possible. This device would be very useful for dealing with infants, who are constantly developing and would have a hard time surviving in this changing world. Every family (especially those with children) would want this machine.

This machine would be handy in a world where the environment is constantly changing, with otherwise dire effects on the population.

  • $\begingroup$ I downvoted on mistake, but was thinking about is since I thought some of these ideas are for smaller groups to do and not a whole population. I decided against it though and 1+ for the ideas, they do seem somewhat realistic. $\endgroup$ – Pobrecita Nov 23 '14 at 0:25
  • $\begingroup$ @iliveunderawesomerock I had the same concerns about some of the effects being too localized. I'm trying to think about more, in part because I can't justify them as applying to a large group and in part because they're a bit unrealistic. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Nov 23 '14 at 0:26
  • $\begingroup$ @ HDE 226868 I agree, but I think you tried. You should however try to generate idea of how they should be used by the younger audience and for work purposes, I think there would be a population usage there. $\endgroup$ – Pobrecita Nov 23 '14 at 0:28
  • $\begingroup$ @iliveunderawesomerock I've been working on it. I'm answering a question on Physics now, so it might be a while before I edit. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Nov 23 '14 at 0:30
  • $\begingroup$ @ HDE 226868 Well, don't mind me. I think your answer is okay as it is for a while. $\endgroup$ – Pobrecita Nov 23 '14 at 0:31

I don't think such a machine would realistically likely, but one scenario does leap to mind:

As radioactive contamination of Earth and genetically-modified organisms and perhaps other industries' side-effects result in more and more common mutations, some breakthrough in DNA manipulation technology might (in sci-fi handwavium manner) result in a personal health maintenance device becoming widespread, with the original rationale being that people could use a device to mitigate these chaotic effects on their DNA. With more advanced handwavium, it might develop into a device that could also let people manipulate their DNA for positive effects rather than just halting damage.

Back in realism-land, I think we're much more likely to mainly be causing all sorts of additional disasters with genetic manipulation before we get to that point.

A more optimistic version might be that after acceptance that corporate GMO crop development was a disastrous mistake, a ban on releasing such organisms was instated and more prudent controls were put of GM research for 1000-10,000 years, until it was well-understood. At that point, a more enlightened society with much more scientific understanding, and much less extremist rogue megacorporate capitalism, allows personal devices where people can modify their own DNA and other biological factors in relatively safe and well-understood ways.


One reason that would immediately cause everyone to want one of these machines is if they were able to reduce aging effects. It would most likely need to go one step beyond DNA modification and be able to tamper with enzymes, telomeres, etc but by doing so it could well roll back your body clock or at least reduce the effects of aging.

  • $\begingroup$ If not real aging, then at least perceptual. With women and men using thousands of different products to look better, and having used many more that are now out of fashion (magnetisms, radiation), we surely will jump on this new fad. $\endgroup$ – user3106 Nov 24 '14 at 10:57

Genetic manipulation devices for whole multi-celled organisms (as opposed to sex cells) are unlikely to ever develop, because you would have to change every single cell in the organism. That said, here are some uses they could be put to if made cheap and common:

  • Scientific research could be greatly advanced if you could change your test subjects to fit your experiment, instead of breeding through multiple generations
  • Cloning wouldn't be researched because you could simply change the organism/human after birth, so why bother?
  • Changing your own abilities would become possible to a greater degree, since you can change your genes
  • Perfect pets are a very likely use of such devices
  • Genetic sabotage might become a form of torture ("I've changed your DNA. Tell me what I want to know, or I'll let you slowly turn into a hamster!"

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