One man’s quest to end hunger in China

Shaun King: So how do we begin to answer this? The technologies that you’re talking about, the synthetic biology tools that you’ve brought up… they’re not just pure engineering. What are some of the characteristics of those tools that make them most useful for some of the things you’re suggesting that we can do, and can they lead us back into a period of sustained sustainable growth? How do you push the boundaries of science and engineering to do that?

Richard Roberts: Let me try and boil it down into seven different questions.

The first is, how quickly can we get our hands on these tools that are not analog, because they don’t exist anymore? And the tools we’re talking about here are synthetic genes, that are built from one thing and then they build something else. And they’re built on an RNA-based sequence, and they can be built to do a number of things. And the first thing they can do is just add to things we already have. That’s pretty profound. A synthetic gene that builds us a new insect-like cyborg and calls it the “dragonfly beetle,” but it’s just a new bug. And all these things are working, so we can use them in a range of different ways.

The second piece of this thing that we call synthetic biology is the ability to bring in with us other organisms that naturally would be proliferating on the planet that can also generate some power, or create fuel. And we can access and use and modify these organisms. And the third of these tools is the ability to change a cell. Now we’re talking about many different things. It could be just a change in the environment, like put out more carbon dioxide into the space around us, or take out carbon dioxide into a different place.

The fourth thing that we can do with the tools is to manage problem. This is something that the person who suggested this–the guy who came up with the idea of synthetic biology–said that he was creating a whole new set of tools that can create clean energy from sewage and the like. And we don’t actually really need to go that far. For example, greening the buildings so that they’re producing more energy. If all the buildings around the world used these principles and we controlled the energy production in the buildings, we could increase our energy output by as much as a third. There’s dozens and dozens of other things we can do, like building a smart grid. So in some sense we’re talking about creating new technologies that can be useful in terms of our domestic environment.

Then the last piece of this is really a very big idea, which is, we have to think about reducing our dependency on the carbon dioxide-producing molecules of other things in the world. And we also have to think about reducing the dependency on the plastic that’s getting into the water. So the idea that this can help us to address problems, it’s one of these revolutionary ideas that opens up the perspective and the possibilities of trying to come up with solutions to some pretty, I think, difficult problems. It is very exciting.

Next question.

Is synthetic biology more useful in solving problems that are intrinsic to our existence, or will this enable us to use new techniques to cut through problems that aren’t as basic, as fundamental?

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