2009 : WHAT WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING?

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Professor of Astronomy, Harvard University; Director, Harvard Origins of Life Initiative; Author, The Life of Super-Earths
SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY WITH INTER-PLANETARY REACH

To an economist "everything" is the world global marketplace. To a baseball fan the World Series is the competition of teams from two countries. To me, a student of astronomy, "everything" is the universe, and really all of it.

What could we possibly do to change that "everything"? People like to say that a scientific idea changed the world when it is as big as Copernicus suggesting that the Sun, not Earth, is at the center. People file the invention of the Internet as a development that changed the world. The list is long.

But which world did these ideas change? Well, yes - they are all about us, Homo sapiens, a recently evolved branch on the "tree of life" with roots in a biochemistry that somehow, 4 billion years ago, took hold on planet Earth. And yes, Homo sapiens has created new amazing things: airplanes, antibiotics, phones, the Internet, but none of these will change the orbits of the stars.

And so it was until now. There is a game-changing scientific development that transcends all in human history. It is already underway and it even has a name: synthetic biology. Different people use synthetic biology to mean different things. Most often synthetic biology is reduced to synthetic genomics - re-designing the genomes of organisms to make them act in new ways. For example, microbes that produce fuel or pharmaceutical products. I use synthetic biology to mean creating new "trees of life", as opposed to synthetic genomics which engineers new branches to the existing Terran "tree". In my use, synthetic biology is about engineering an alternative biochemistry, thus "seeding" an alternative "tree" that then evolves on its own. In that, alternative life is as natural as any life we know.

I shall let others describe what it is and how they are going to do it. One thing is sure - it is going to be powerful - biologists will use synthesis the same way chemists today use synthesis routinely. But there is more! It is the inter-planetary reach of synthetic biology that makes it a new phenomenon in the cosmos we know.

Life is a planetary phenomenon that can transform a planet. The development of synthetic biology appears to be a stage in life's evolution when some of its forms can leave the host planet and adapt to other environments, potentially transforming other planets and eventually the Galaxy.