Thursday, July 24, 2008

Freeman Dyson on Do-It-Yourself Biotech and Extraterrestrial Life

Physicist Freeman Dyson gave a TED talk where he suggests that in the future there will be do-it-yourself biotechnology kits for the home geneticist, and that this is a necessary for the future acceptance of biotech by the general population.
“We should follow the model that has been so successful with the electronic industry.” Dyson said. “What really turned computers into a great success in the world as a whole was toys. As soon as computers became toys, when the kids could come home and play with them, then the industry took off. That has to happen with biotech.”
He does acknowledge that he doesn't really know that much about biotechnology, and so it's understandable that he misses an important point: biotech "toys" involve the manipulation of living and (often) breathing life forms. Accidentally creating an genetically engineered dog that is in constant pain is fundamentally different than mis-soldering a capacitor to a motherboard. And the release of genetically engineered animals, plants and microbes has the potential to cause significant environmental damage. Messing with biology just isn't the same as toying with electronics.

The rest of Dyson's talk mostly focuses about the search for extraterrestrial life on Europa by shining a bright light on the surface, which is kind of a nifty if unlikely to be successful idea. "Look for what is detectable, not for what is probable" is his philosophy.
Hopefully, if we do end up finding life on Europa it goes a bit better than Clarke predicted in 2010: Odyssey Two, where humans are ordered to stay away from that moon so as not to disturb the life there.

The last bit of Dyson's talk is about possible life in the Kuiper belt, which - if it exists at all - he believes will be quite widespread. Such life would be adapted to living in the extremely cold vacuum of space. This is not a new idea from him. In a talk he gave in 2000, he not only talked about the possibility that life that already exists among the asteroids, but that Earth life might be adapted to live under those conditions too:
The jump from breathing air to living in a vacuum is no greater than the jump from breathing water to breathing air. Plants and animals will need some genetic engineering to be at home in a vacuum. Plants will need new organs of photosynthesis that produce liquid or solid peroxides instead of oxygen gas. Animals will need new organs of respiration to take in oxygen in the form of peroxides instead of from air. Instead of lungs, animals would have an organ like a liver that dissociates peroxides slowly into molecular oxygen and feeds the oxygen into the blood.
Both plants and animals will need stronger skin to hold internal pressure and prevent their blood from boiling. The vapor pressure of water at blood temperature is quite small, so the skin will not need to be thick to hold it. In cold places far from the sun, animals will need thicker layers of fur and plants will need thicker layers of bark to provide thermal insulation. This will be a challenge for plant and animal breeders, but with a mastery of the techniques of genetic engineering they should be able to do it.
While that sounds fairly far-fetched, perhaps children that grow up playing with bioengineering kits will be able to solve any technical problems for developing life adapted to space.

(Dyson lecture via Tomorrow's Table)
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