We’re learning about our own history, our own migrations, but we have to do something different for the future. A major producer once argued that we have two hopes for humanity, one is to be able to populate distant planets, and the other is to alter our genetic code so we can survive in a very deteriorated environment here on the planet.
We’re working on both, and there are some exciting changes. Science is changing things very quickly. Think about how the Internet has changed all of our lives in the last decade or so. I assume most people here have an iPad, and that’s three years old, barely? And it’s hard to imagine life without an iPad in our culture. But very soon we’re going to be able to send something else across the Internet. We can now send biology at the speed of light, and this is one of the implications of our work, which we recorded two years ago making the first synthetic life form. We completely synthesized the genetic code of a cell starting with a digital code in the computer—it’s the ultimate interface between computers and biology. The digital code and the genetic code have a lot in common; something Schrodinger pointed out in 1943, saying it could be something as simple as the Morse code.
Digital code, as you know, is a binary code, and ones and zeroes, and your genetic code is literally four-base code with ACGs and Ts. We can now readily convert in between the two, and we can define life at its most basic level. Things that were a mystery fifty, sixty, seventy years ago, we now understand completely.
The idea that you’re basically a DNA-driven software device is not the view that people necessarily have of themselves. But every cell on this planet works that way in a biological-to-mechanical kind of fashion. No brain controlling what happens with DNA reading and protein synthesis in your cells. The combination of one hundred trillion cells gives different people different abilities to make wonderful music, to make science advances, to think, but every one of those cells operates in the same fashion. And that means we will be able to decode how the brain functions by understanding these same mechanisms. There’s no need to evoke mysticism or a higher being. That’s what Schrodinger did seventy years ago. He couldn’t explain things, so he did what people do when they can’t explain something. He evokes mysticism. But science is getting very advanced with regard our understanding life. We know what it is, and we now know how to reproduce it. We produce life by writing new software.
But DNA is not the engine of life, it’s the software of life; the proteins are the engines, they’re driven directly by that code in a very understandable, predictable fashion now. This has implications in many different areas.
We have teams trying to work on new sources of food, actually designing new food in the computer. It may be awhile before they taste as wonderful as some of the food we had tonight, but we can actually design foods that have very high nutritional components to them, and we’re learning a lot as a society about food chemistry. The Olympics are about to hit London. Many of the Olympic athletes have special physicians and nutritionists. They’re giving them certain types of proteins. These Olympic trainers can actually sculpt people’s bodies in very specific fashions, depending on which muscle groups they want it to go.
We are chemical beings, and we’re software-driven beings, and once you understand that, then you can write new software. Anything becomes possible. We’re trying to design cells to make new sources of energy, recycling carbon dioxide, getting these same cells to maybe use their recycled CO2 to make food, as well as fuel. It was an exciting change at least at a stage when we’re exhausting our existing natural resources, and unless we can just stop population expansion, we have to do something pretty drastic in new sources of food, fuel, water and medicine.
It’s an exciting time for science, it’s an exciting time for society, but I’m sure there are a lot of strange thoughts running through your minds about the implications of some of this and where it might take us. We were tossing around ideas earlier. We’re trying to make meat just by making beef and chicken muscle proteins without the cow and the chicken. And so I was calling it “motherless meat”. And then Brian Eno came up with the line that it was “murderless” meat.
Those of you who are vegetarians are going to have real dilemmas in the future of not knowing what’s meat and what’s vegetable, because in fact, we can grow these meat proteins in vegetables. In fact, vegetables have most of the same proteins that are in meat anyway. Our definitions of life are getting clearer; the social ambiguities are getting greater.