It is too early to be sure if the distinguishing feature of the 21st century will be biological technology, but there is a good chance that it will be. Simple genetic engineering is now routine; indeed, the first patent application for an artificial living organism has recently been filed (see article). Both the idea of such an organism and the idea that someone might own the rights to it would have been science fiction even a decade ago. And it is not merely that such things are now possible. The other driving force of technological change—necessity—is also there. Many of the big problems facing humanity are biological, or are susceptible to biological intervention. The question of how to deal with an ageing population is one example. Climate change, too, is intimately bound up with biology since it is the result of carbon dioxide going into the air faster than plants can remove it. And the risk of a new, lethal infection suddenly becoming pandemic as a result of modern transport links (see article) is as biological as it gets. Even the fact that such an infection might itself be the result of synthetic biology only emphasises the biological nature of future risks.With that kind of importance, how can science fiction not be biology-based?
The special report includes several articles that take a look at the cutting edge of the biosciences, focusing on recent studies that have revealed new functions for RNA.
If RNA is controlling the complexity of the whole organism, that suggests the operating system of each cell is not only running the cell in question, but is linking up with those of the other cells when a creature is developing. To push the analogy, organs such as the brain are the result of a biological internet. If that is right, the search for the essence of humanity has been looking in the wrong genetic direction.I'd say that's a bit of hyperbole - RNA certainly doesn't define the "essence of humanity," since much of the original research they are reporting comes from studies using nematodes and plants. While it's true that the role of RNA in gene regulation is only starting to come to light, it's just one element in the complex systems that make up living organisms.
Read all the articles:
- Biology's Big Bang (introduction)
- Patent pending (patenting artificial life)
- Really New Advances (the RNA revolution)
- Little hopes (drugs based on RNA interference)
- How Dr Chan intends to defend the planet from pandemics
The image is the Dicer-homolog protein, an enzyme involved in the RNA interference pathway. From the Wikipedia article on RNA interference.