As countries and industries grow increasingly overwhelmed by wave after wave of bankruptcies, layoffs, restructurings, botched contracts, and embarrassing bonuses, they might lose sight of a second, much larger set of tsunamis gathering force over the horizon. While the economy is melting down, technology is moving forward at an even faster rate. The ability to adapt to the accelerating pace of change will determine who survives.
To use the current bailout jargon, at least three major technologies are shovel-ready: the programming of tissues, the ability to engineer cells, and robots. As these breakthroughs and others converge, we are going to see a massive restructuring of global economic power.
We can now program life. Several months ago, researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute and Synthetic Genomics took a mycoplasma cell and inserted long strands of DNA into it, making the cell an entirely different species. In January 2008, the same team built and inserted the world's largest organic molecule into a cell -- this is the equivalent of a complete software package to program cells. One year later they produced thousands of these programs in a single day.
Taken together, these discoveries mean that one can write out a life code, manipulate a cell, and execute a specific desired function. It means we can convert cells into programmable manufacturing entities. But this software builds its own hardware, allowing companies to begin using bacteria to produce chemicals, fuels, medicines, textiles, data storage, or any series of organic products.
These discoveries, and new applications, are spreading rapidly. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have assembled a standard registry of biological parts. Think of this as a RadioShack for cells. You can get open-source proteins, RNA, DNA, regulators, and terminators. In 2008, hundreds of students from 21 countries came together to make cool live stuff. Rice University’s team tried to engineer resveratrol (the substance that makes red wine good for you) into beer, leading one judge to exclaim, "Wow, cancer-fighting beer. There is a God!" The Taiwanese team was just a little more ambitious. It attempted to engineer gut bacteria to act as a kidney.
Over the next decade, hundreds of open-source and private designs will blossom into millions of projects and applications. Some of these products will fundamentally change how and where we produce most of what we consume.
A second major tsunami is our increasing ability to grow complex organic structures, such as limbs, bladders, hearts, and tracheas. All complex organisms start out as undifferentiated, pluripotent cells, meaning these cells contain an entire genome and are able to produce all body parts. Mexico's dinosaur-like axolotl salamanders naturally regrow body parts, including sections of their hearts and brains as well as whole limbs. A very young human can regrow parts of fingers. Taking this concept one step further, Cliff Tabin at Harvard Medical School is growing extra wings on chickens.