How Scientists Plan to Grow Cities Out of Living Organisms

By Jennifer Ouellette on at

Imagine a future where there is no need to cut down a tree and and reshape that raw material into a chair or table. Instead, we could grow our furniture by custom-engineering moss or mushrooms. Perhaps glowing bacteria will light our cities, and we’ll be able to bring back extinct species, or wipe out Lyme disease—or maybe even terraform Mars. Synthetic biology could help us accomplish all that, and more.

That’s the message of the latest video in a new mini-documentary Web series called Explorations, focusing on potentially transformative areas of scientific research: genomics, artificial intelligence, neurobiology, transportation, space exploration, and synthetic biology. It’s a passion project of entrepreneur Bryan Johnson, founder of OS Fund and the payments processing company Braintree.

There’s a good selection of featured voices in the video. You’ve got pioneers like Harvard’s George Church and Drew Endy of Stanford University mixed in with visionaries like Rehma Shetty of Ginkgo Bioworks (which designs custom microbes, like yeast that smells like grapes, and dreams of building furniture from genetically tailored fungi); the folks at Paris-based startup Glowee (who think bioluminescence is the future of lighting); and artist/designer Daisy Ginsberg, who weaves synthetic biology into her creative projects to reimagine systems design.

“The most stunning and consequential development of our time is this: we have built tools of creation that increasingly have the power to literally code any kind of world we imagine,” Johnson wrote earlier this year at the Daily Dot about his conception of the series “Synthetic biology allows us to program organisms to grow objects. Genomics is starting to allow us to program our bodies. A.I. allows us to build new forms of intelligence.” He hopes the series will inspire young people in particular to build that visionary future world.

Not everyone is as big a fan as Johnson of synthetic biology and these other cutting-edge fields. Progress brings both promise and potential peril, after all. In 2012, more than 100 environmental groups issued a manifesto calling for a global ban on the use of synthetic organisms commercially until better regulations and safety measures are in place. And a new Pew Research Center poll released last week found that most Americans remain fearful of so-called “designer babies,” implanted brain chips and other biological enhancements.

Even strong proponents of synthetic biology acknowledge that there are many philosophical and ethical that need to be addressed regarding this rapidly evolving field. But synthetic biology is here to stay. It’s up to us to make sure that it’s used responsibly.

Be sure to check out the first two videos in the series as well.