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Biology Is Technology

Biology Is Technology

Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: Harvard University Press
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Biology Is Technology
    Book Description:

    In Biology Is Technology, author Robert Carlson offers a uniquely informed perspective on the endeavors that contribute to current progress in the science of biological systems and the technology used to manipulate them.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-05362-5
    Subjects: Biological Sciences, Business

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. CHAPTER ONE What Is Biology?
    (pp. 1-7)

    Biology is technology. Biology is theoldesttechnology. Throughout the history of life on Earth, organisms have made use of each other in sophisticated ways. Early on in this history, the ancestors of both plants and animals co-opted free-living organisms that became the subcellular components now called chloroplasts and mitochondria. These bits of technology provide energy to their host cells and thereby underpin the majority of life on this planet.

    It’s a familiar story: plants, algae, and cyanobacteria use sunlight to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen. Those organisms also serve as food for a vast pyramid of herbivores and carnivores,...

  5. CHAPTER TWO Building with Biological Parts
    (pp. 8-19)

    Building with legos is an excellent metaphor for future building with biology. The utility and unifying feature of LEGOS, Tinkertoys, Erector Sets, Zoob, or Tente is that the pieces fit together in very understandable and defined ways. This is not to say they are inflexible—with a little imagination extraordinary structures can be built from LEGOS and the other systems of parts. But it is easy to see how two bricks (or any of the other newfangled shapes) will fit together just by looking at them.

    The primary reason that we fret about bioterror and bioerror is that in human...

  6. CHAPTER THREE Learning to Fly (or Yeast, Geese, and 747s)
    (pp. 20-32)

    There is an old saying in physics that geese can’t fly. It is a mystery to this day how geese manage to carry all that mass around on long flights. Our understanding of the physics of flight suggests that geese should not be graceful and efficient, despite clear evidence to the contrary. Estimates of how much power is required for a bird to maintain a certain mass aloft have always been somewhat confused, as illustrated by the difference between previous theoretical predictions and experimental measurements published in the journalNaturein 2001.¹ It turns out that heavy birds are considerably...

  7. CHAPTER FOUR The Second Coming of Synthetic Biology
    (pp. 33-49)

    “I must tell you that I can prepare urea without requiring a kidney of an animal, either man or dog.”¹ With these words, in 1828 Friedrich Wöhler claimed he had irreversibly changed the world. In a letter to his former teacher Joens Jacob Berzelius, Wöhler wrote that he had witnessed “the great tragedy of science, the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.” The beautiful idea to which he referred was vitalism, the notion that organic matter, exemplified in this case by urea, was animated and created by a vital force and that it could not be synthesized...

  8. CHAPTER FIVE A Future History of Biological Engineering
    (pp. 50-62)

    The biobrick challenge is by no means a fantasy; it presently exists in the form of the International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) competition, coordinated by MIT. The iGEM competition is now run every summer, with participating university students drawn from all over the world. In 2006 several hundred students, organized into thirtynine teams from thirty-seven universities, represented countries around the world.1 In 2007 nearly seven hundred students from twenty countries competed on fifty-nine teams.

    The time scale for building a new genetic circuit during iGEM is not a few hours but rather several months. Yet this relatively short period of...

  9. CHAPTER SIX The Pace of Change in Biological Technologies
    (pp. 63-80)

    All i want for christmas is my Discovery DNA Explorer Kit!¹ With a colorful plastic centrifuge, a few bottles of simple chemicals, and a price tag of $79.95, anyone can get started manipulating DNA from any organism at hand. A further quick trip online will suffice to procure enzymes and reagents for cutting, pasting, and amplifying nucleic acids. Children can now begin playing with DNA in their bedrooms, and no doubt hacking will soon follow. Those truly motivated to hack DNA could do so now by ordering the kits often used in academic or industrial labs and by compiling information...

  10. CHAPTER SEVEN The International Genetically Engineered Machines Competition
    (pp. 81-96)

    You might not think that making bacteria smell like bananas could change the world. But over the summer of 2006, a team of five MIT undergraduates, with no prior laboratory experience to speak of, built a genetic circuit that will change the way people think about engineering biological systems.

    The bacteriumE. colilives in the intestines of mammals and constitutes an important component of the digestive system. Naturally occurringE. coli—no surprise—smell like feces. The odor is due to indole, a compound produced by the bacteria and used in intercellular communication and biofilm formation.¹ The five undergraduates,...

  11. CHAPTER EIGHT Reprogramming Cells and Building Genomes
    (pp. 97-107)

    A frothy tank of microbes growing in Berkeley, California, may hold the key to producing an inexpensive cure for malaria. Within that tank, genetically modified yeast churn out the immediate chemical precursor to artemisinin, the most effective antimalarial drug in the human armamentarium. The precursor, artemisinic acid, can be easily converted into several different versions of the drug, which for the sake of simplicity I here lump together as “artemisinin.” A single seven-day course of the drug cures the disease. In regions where adherence to weeklong-treatment courses is poor, artemisinin in combination with other drugs reduces treatment to three days....

  12. CHAPTER NINE The Promise and Peril of Biological Technologies
    (pp. 108-130)

    Biology is the epitome of a dual-use technology. All of the tools and techniques that promise progress in basic science and that enable new vaccines can be put to nefarious uses with equal ease.

    Our response to infectious organisms such as influenza and the SARS virus are excellent scientific and policy test cases of our readiness for future threats. Only by openly studying pathogens that cause epidemics, publicly discussing the results, and publicly preparing our defense can we hope to be ready for both human creations and natural surprises.

    Influenza viruses are difficult and dangerous to work with at the...

  13. CHAPTER TEN The Sources of Innovation and the Effects of Existing and Proposed Regulations
    (pp. 131-149)

    How do we maximize the pace of technology development while improving physical and economic security? Creating and commercializing new tools and methods is a complicated process. There is an enormous difference between demonstrating functionality in the laboratory and producing a product that people want to use in the real world. As in the case of technologies discussed in prior chapters, government policy and the availability of funding will play important roles in moving biology from the lab into the economy. As we consider how best to foster the development of new technology, it helps to explore where that innovation arises....

  14. CHAPTER ELEVEN Laying the Foundations for a Bioeconomy
    (pp. 150-177)

    The title of this chapter is, of course, behind the times: we already have a thriving bioeconomy. Without high-yield agriculture, the scope and accomplishments of human society would be severely limited, and without access to the fossil remains of prior life on Earth, now mined as petroleum, coal, and methane, we would be without considerable volumes of materials, fertilizer, and fuel and would be impoverished further still. Increases in agricultural productivity are just one example of improvements in biological technologies, which is particularly relevant here because the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) claims that agriculture relies more on technology to...

  15. CHAPTER TWELVE Of Straitjackets and Springboards for Innovation
    (pp. 178-199)

    Owning ideas is nowhere guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.¹ Rather, according to Article 1 , Section 8 , “Congress shall have power . . . to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”² Participating in the “patent bargain” gives inventors a temporary monopoly in exchange for full disclosure of an invention and all knowledge and skills necessary to reproduce it. Ideally, the patent system exists as a mechanism to encourage innovators. In practice, over the last several centuries, it has often...

  16. CHAPTER THIRTEEN Open-Source Biology, or Open Biology?
    (pp. 200-217)

    Biological technologies are experiencing exponential change. Garage biology is a reality. India, China, and Brazil are among many rapidly developing economies pushing homegrown biological technologies. Undergraduates and high school students around the world are contributing to high-end research and development. What a world we live in.

    We are even seeing the beginning of collaboration motivated by complex engineering. As related in Chapter 11, large corporations seeking to develop multitrait genetic modifications of plants have recently entered cooperative agreements precisely because the job is so complex. The challenge ahead is in facilitating that sort of collaboration more widely, particularly in the...

  17. CHAPTER FOURTEEN What Makes a Revolution?
    (pp. 218-239)

    Sometimes revolutions appear in hindsight, the outcome of upheaval you didn’t see coming, the result of change nobody managed to trumpet and claim credit for. There is currently a revolution well under way, progressing quietly amid the cataloging of parts and the sequencing of bases. We are only now beginning to understand the power at our fingertips.

    Recall that products derived from modified genomes are already the equivalent of about 2 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, with an absolute monetary value that is growing at 15–20 percent per year. In the period 2006–2007, the monetary value of...

  18. Afterword
    (pp. 240-242)

    The hardest part of writing this book was keeping pace with changes in biological technologies. It was like trying to maintain one’s footing on shifting sands during an earthquake while a hurricane comes ashore.

    The story about synthetic biological systems started with Michael Elowitz, Tim Gardner, and Drew Endy in Chapter 4, and touched on iGEM and a few other individuals along the way, but I was unable to discuss scores of excellent published examples of synthetic biological systems that display predictable behaviors. This omission occurred simply because everyone in the field is running so fast that it is impossible...

  19. Notes
    (pp. 243-266)
  20. Index
    (pp. 267-280)
  21. Back Matter
    (pp. 281-281)