Today, if you like playing with electricity, you can hop over to Amazon and buy the Extreme Snap Circuits
set and put together transistors, switches, lamps, motors, resistors, and capacitors to build all sorts of fun projects, from an auto-off night light to the perpetually entertaining space war timer
. More ambitious engineers can buy off-the-shelf parts to build appliances, computers, and control systems for Boeing's 787 Dreamliner.
What if you could engineer biology this way? What would you build? Physicist and scientific prophet Freeman Dyson would love to build genetically engineered pets and ornamental plants.
Standford biologist Drew Endy envisions a collection of standardized biological parts called BioBricks
, off-the-shelf modules that biological engineers can assemble like snap circuits into amazing biological machines. An annual undergraduate competition, the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition
draws teams of biogeeks who design glowing microbes that spell "Hello World" on an agar plate and gut bacteria that smell like mint or bananas.
This all sounds exciting, but what's the reality? Do biological engineers, or synthetic biologists (as they are most commonly called) have anything close to the know-how of today's electrical or aerospace engineers? The answer, obviously, is no.