Thursday, June 14, 2007

Biology is the New Physics

According to today's issue of the Economist, "What physics was to the 20th century, biology will be to the 21st"

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:
The image is the Dicer-homolog protein, an enzyme involved in the RNA interference pathway. From the Wikipedia article on RNA interference.


  1. George Turner opened his Beloved Son (1978) with a quote saying that soon it would be the biologists and not the physicists who would be locked up. This is from memory as I don't have a copy at hand. In fact I wonder where it is; I think I bought it with some class prize gift certificate in about 1980, in grade 9 or something. Mmmmh, must be getting old.

  2. I can only hope this means that biology as biology (in all its messiness) wil be taken more seriously in science fiction. There are so many science fiction tales premised on the idea that it is possible to separate consciousness from the biologicial body and upload into some computer without it being in any way problematic. It's as if there is something to be despised in having consciousness embedded in biologial material (I guess at least in part because bodies die).

  3. Meika: I think Turner may be right. While physicists are great at making things blow up, biologists can change the human body in horrifying ways and create terrible new diseases. I think that's why the "mad scientists" in horror books and movies are more likely to be biologists of some sort.

    Michal: There are a number of people that would argue that moving "consciousness" (or at least artificial computer connectivity that mimics consciousness) into machines is serious science. I personally think they are too optimistic, and it's true that it's often used in science fiction as an easy plot device.

    I think it's true that some of the people who are really excited about the possibility of uploading our brains are indeed unhappy with their own bodies. It's probably in part because our flesh decays and is susceptible to disease and also in part because there are limits to the conditions in which the human body can survive. What they don't seem to acknowledge that a computer consciousness would have its own set of vulnerabilities.

  4. It's probably in part because our flesh decays and is susceptible to disease and also in part because there are limits to the conditions in which the human body can survive.

    Like I said, I must be getting old...

    and that said, I'd say that wetware still has the track record over silicon and copper. I mean where's the evidence they can last as long as our bodies have now for generations.

  5. Paul: I've always loved your concept of Amish using advanced genetic engineering. To me that's the cutting edge of science.

    Meika: I know what you mean. The hard drive in my laptop barely survived into toddlerhood.


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