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Over billions of years,
the natural world has evolved exquisite beauty and complexity.
But just recently, we've started to do something remarkable.
We've found a way to take life and radically re-design it.
We have put ourselves in this extraordinary position,
where nature itself can be disassembled into spare parts.
And now we can put them back together, just as we please.
Incredible as it sounds, life itself has become a programmable machine.
These new machines aren't mechanical or electrical, but biological.
And they're starting to change our world.
I'm Dr Adam Rutherford
and I want to explore what we're able to do with this new power.
So what you're telling me is that somewhere on this farm
there is an animal which is part spider, part something else?
This new science can be as unsettling as it is intriguing.
We're in the matrix here, aren't we?
We're granting ourselves unprecedented control
over living things. That is a high-stakes game
and with it comes a question - can this power be abused?
'KSL News Radio, and this is Utah's morning news,
-'I'm Grant Nielson...
-..And I'm Amanda Dickson.
'Right now, down town it's cloudy, 60 degrees,
'a roll over blocking traffic on I-80...'
Logan County, Utah.
Where farming is a way of life.
Now I've come here to see something
which I think is truly, truly extraordinary.
This may look like a fairly typical farm -
there's grain over there, there are horses and cows and sheep -
and it certainly smells like a real farm,
but there's one animal here which I think shouldn't really exist.
This isn't your usual farm. It's part of Utah State University.
Professor Randy Lewis is working on a project that shows
if you combine the principles of farming with the latest science,
you quickly find yourself in a very odd place.
It starts with spiders.
-So what is it about spiders?
-Well, the spider that we have here
is called an orb-weaver
and she makes six different kinds of silk and the silk we're interested in
is called drag-line silk, they catch themselves with it when they fall.
It's actually stronger than Kevlar. So it really has some amazing properties for any kind of a fibre.
So you've got this amazing property of silk which, I mean,
it's stronger than anything we can make ourselves?
So that's an attractive material that we want to get some of.
That's right, we want to make a lot of it.
So we're on a farm here, why don't you just farm the spiders?
They're very cannibalistic so they'll basically kill each other
till everybody has enough room to do it.
So basically spiders are un-farmable.
-Spiders are absolutely un-farmable.
-Can we get her out?
Ah, she's so... She's beautiful, look at that.
Why would anyone be afraid of that? I just think she's gorgeous.
My hands are actually getting bound in silk as she runs round them,
-I'll be cocooned soon.
-And that's why they call it drag-line.
I mean, she leaves it there the entire time.
We've spent a very long time trying to figure out a way to produce lots of silk
and the only way we've got it is that we have to take the spider silk gene
and transfer it to an animal
that can produce large quantities of the silk.
So what you're telling me is that, somewhere on this farm,
there is an animal which is part spider and part something else.
There are and they will produce large amounts of spider silk
protein for us to turn into fibres.
I think you need to show me that.
-These are our goats.
-So they're just regular goats.
-They're absolutely regular goats.
Except they're not, they're totally incredible goats.
So, over here, we have the kids that were born this year
and the older goats are all on that side.
-And these are your spider goats.
-These are the spider goats.
And they're eating my top.
Hey, come on. OK, hey, hey! Behave! Just cos you're on camera.
And so these kids have the genes for a spider in them.
-This is, it's insane.
And where does the spider silk actually come from?
I mean, where do you get it?
It was designed so it comes in the milk.
They look like such normal goats but in fact they're totally unique
and bizarre. I mean, this is bizarre.
I guess I would not say it's bizarre.
I think that it's certainly different but, you know,
they're absolutely normal, I don't think there's anything different about them.
Hey, Freckles. Come here.
-Come over here. Right, so we have names for all the goats.
She's actually one of the very original goats that was created.
Can we actually milk them now?
Yeah, we can, the two that are standing right here, 57 and 59
who are Pudding and Sweetie. We can milk those and you can see the milk.
-Pudding and Sweetie.
-Pudding and Sweetie.
-Freckles, Pudding and Sweetie the spider goats.
-Just a totally regular farm(!)
-That's right, that's right.
Ah, so well behaved as well!
That's right, that's right, they know. Get that out of the way.
There you go, there you go.
So the pumps just go on like that?
That's all there is to it.
Oh, you can see it. You can actually see it coming out.
Yep, you can see milk coming out.
So this is exactly the same as any normal goat milking process.
Absolutely, absolutely. Do exactly the same.
All right, so she's about done and we can disconnect this.
We can now get this open and you can take a look and see.
-Well, just looks like normal milk.
-Looks like absolutely normal milk.
If you do an analysis of it and look at all the components of the milk,
the only thing you'll find is different is one extra protein and that's the spider silk protein.
All the rest looks like normal goats milk.
You make it sound all really matter-of-fact.
I mean, we've just milked a goat,
we're on a farm, it's all rather mundane but, I mean,
this is really cutting-edge science isn't it?
It's much more difficult than it certainly sounds like.
Once you get the embryo, the gene into the embryo
then it really is farming.
So you take the gene from a spider
and then you put it in the goat
but that's not what's in here is it?
-There's no, there are no genes in here.
-No, it's the protein
and spider silk is made out of proteins
same as your hair, same as your skin,
same as all the proteins in your body that digest your food,
that carry oxygen around from your lungs,
-it's exactly the same kind of a protein.
-And the gene itself
-is the code to make that protein.
-Exactly, we take the gene
and that gives in this case the goat instructions to say, "Make spider silk protein,"
and they produce it only when they're lactating.
Well, I'm still not entirely convinced, it looks a lot like normal milk to me,
so can you show actually how to get the silk out?
-Sure. We'll take it back to the lab and we'll purify the protein and then we'll spin some fibres.
The milk is filtered to remove the fats
and leave only the proteins.
A2nd from this purified protein comes the silk.
Mimicking the spider's behaviour in nature, the silk is pulled out.
And then it can be simply laced onto a spool.
It's incredible, it just looks like spider silk. It's exactly the same.
It looks very much the same.
-So this is one continuous thread.
-And then we wrap it up on a reel.
I can't quite believe that you can make something
that's taken millions of years to evolve,
you can just make it and put it on a roll and we can just pass it between each other.
-And even more, we started with the goats.
-But it's not just for fun, though, is it?
No, there are a lot of applications that we think of, especially in the medical field.
We already know we can produce spider silk
that's good enough to be used in both tendon and ligament repair.
We already know we can make it strong enough and elastic enough,
we've done some studies that show it's biocompatible,
you can put it in the body and you don't get immune response,
you don't got inflammation, you don't get ill, so we hope within even a couple of years,
that we're going to be testing to see exactly the best designs
and the best materials that we make that would be used for that.
Spider silk, made from a goat, implanted into humans.
Now, I don't know what these animals think about being spider goats
or whether they've got any idea at all,
but we've been farming goats for thousands of years now
to make them bigger and stronger and to produce more milk.
And in the space of just one generation, a few years,
these animals have been created
and they couldn't possibly have existed otherwise.
And no matter how amazing or unsettling or just plain bizarre
you think that is, this is just the beginning.
Transferring a single gene from a spider to a goat is one thing,
but what if we had power over the entire genetic code of a life form?
Very recently, we created that power.
And it's raised key questions about how far we should take it.
To really get a grip on where this field is at
we don't have to go back very far.
In just 2010, a team of scientists created something
that generated shock and awe in the press but left the rest of the world
not really quite sure what to make of it all.
A familiar but powerful term was used to describe it - "Playing God".
'In an amazing scientific breakthrough,
'researchers say they've created the first ever synthetic life form.
'They hope it will create life saving medicine and new forms of energy,
'but the development is not without controversy.'
'We're here today to announce the first synthetic cell.
'The electronics industry only had a dozen or so components
'and look at the diversity that came out of that.
'We're limited here primarily by biological reality and our imagination.'
After 15 years and 40 million of research,
Dr Craig Venter had created something unique.
A completely synthetic life form, that was nicknamed Synthia.
But who or what was Synthia?
So this it, Synthia, or to give it its proper name,
Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn 1.0.
It's the very simplest of bacterial cells. Really not much to look at,
but what's truly impressive about this
is the fact that Synthia was not born from another bacteria.
This is the only life form on Earth whose parent is a computer.
'By moving the software of DNA around,
'we can change things dramatically.'
To make Synthia, Craig Venter took a simple cell.
And he took all of its DNA code and plugged that into a computer.
Once the code is in a computer, it's effectively DNA software.
Next, he extracted the DNA from a similar cell...
..discarded it and went back to the DNA software he'd created.
And then came the really clever bit.
Venter synthesised all of that DNA, just like printing it out.
Now he had a physical version of that DNA software
ready to be inserted into the empty cell.
And with a spark, he booted it up, just like powering up a computer.
Except by any definition, this thing was now a living organism.
Had Craig Venter created life? Not really.
But he had recreated it and, in a sense, rebooted it.
Synthia may have been something quite simple,
a fairly straightforward bacteria, but, after you've set aside
all of the hype, the fact remains that Venter had done something
that has never been achieved in 4 billion years of life on Earth -
he'd made an organism whose parent was a computer.
And that, more than anything else,
demonstrated an unprecedented degree of control over a living thing.
This blurring of the boundaries between computer code
and biology has fuelled a whole new field of science.
With our new-found ability to engineer life,
we can start to think of organisms as biological machines
that are under our control.
And to see where these bold ideas are taking us,
I've come here, to high-tech America.
I reckon these are all quite tricky concepts to get your head around -
things like biological machines,
or that DNA is like software that you can just print out.
This approach has a name, and it's synthetic biology.
Now, even for a biologist this is pretty bewildering stuff
but that is also exactly why it's so exciting.
Professor Ron Weiss was one of the founders of synthetic biology,
there at the beginning of it all, and he started out
not as a biologist, but a computer scientist.
So at first I was interested in understanding how we can take
what we know about biology and apply that to computing.
And at some point, I decided to flip that around and try to take
what we understand in computing and apply that to programming biology
and, to me, that's really the essence of synthetic biology.
And what do you need to get started?
Actually, all that we need is available right here in my bag.
There's one major advantage of having life written in computer code.
All you have to do to access it is get online.
It's an approach that's led to a visionary new take on biology.
We want to think about DNA as parts that we can then glue together
to make more parts, putting systems together,
putting maybe circuits together, built out of these DNA parts.
But where do you get these parts from? They're in our cells.
Right, but the cool thing is you can actually go online
and get new DNA parts.
Let's say for example we want a part that make a blue protein,
so here's that arrow, you see that arrow right,
that arrow is a part that tells the cell,
"Make a protein that creates a blue colour."
That's what it is, and I can put that into my circuit and those parts -
we call them biobricks - and so we can take these biobricks
and actually put them together to assemble, you know, biocircuits.
You said that very casually.
You said that like it hasn't been 4 billion years of evolution
which has got my cells doing what they do.
Right, they do it quite well, and they have a piece of DNA...
-Quite well. It's not perfect though, right?
We die on occasion, we get cancer on occasion.
-And you think you can do it better?
-Um, sometimes, perhaps.
What about actual, useful, real world applications?
So, what else could you do? So, for example,
imagine this program, this piece of DNA which goes into the cell
and it says, "If cancer cell,
"then make a protein that kills the cancer cell, if not just go away."
That's another kind of program that we're able to write and implement
-and test in living cells right now.
-You can do that?
-We have done that.
-It's like a targeted assassin.
This works in the lab.
It doesn't work quite in a clinic yet, that would be the next step.
That's radical thinking!
It's radically different from anything that's come before.
'Ron doesn't even need to be in a lab
'to put the strands of DNA together to make a biological circuit.'
We actually have biobricks, pieces of DNA here.
So let me put them together.
So I'll take this biobrick and I want say,
I want to put these two together, so I'm going to open up pieces of DNA,
I'm going to take some from here...
..mix it right there, OK?
We've put two parts together, I'm done with this biobrick.
I need one last component which is the glue,
I need to be able to glue them together, so here's my glue.
I'm going to take that out,
make sure I have just right amount of glue, I'm going to mix them together
and then it's done.
And so, now, in this tube, you've got this circuit,
you've just built a biological machine...
That may never have existed before.
-That we've just done in a cafe in downtown San Francisco.
-In a cafe, you and me together.
A lot of people can now do this.
We have the information, we have the technology now.
-Brave new world.
Ron's simple demonstration of al fresco biology has shown
that with a new level of simplicity and accessibility
you can build biological circuits that programme biological machines.
The democratic nature of having biological parts,
or biobricks, readily available online,
has proved particularly appealing to one group of innovators.
Now, it's not unusual, in university corridors,
to come across adverts on notice boards
for things like cocktail societies or sports clubs.
This one's slightly different and I want to read you a couple of lines.
"Removal of metal ions from contaminated water."
How about, "Repair of human tissue using bacteria"?
Or this one says, "A biofilter for radioactive waste."
Now, these are not clubs.
These are entries from universities around the world for IGEM,
the International Genetically Engineered Machine Contest.
Basically, they're all ideas for saving the world.
Here at the University of Cambridge the IGEM team leader,
Cat McMurran, has asked to meet somewhere a little unusual
to tell me about their entry.
'The story of this particular biological machine
'begins at a fish restaurant.
'And with one particular dish - squid.'
They're essentially masters of disguise.
They have fantastic abilities to camouflage themselves
so when they're hiding from predators
they can very carefully match the colour
and kind of even approximate what the texture of background there is.
What is it about this beast
that gives it the ability to camouflage itself?
The really cool bit that inspired us
is that underneath that layer of skin you can see some shiny cells.
They're not very clear there, you can see it better in the eye.
Oh, I see. It looks a bit like tin foil.
Yeah, it's essentially the same.
There's some of it leaking out of the eye.
'The team wanted turn the camouflage system into a new biobrick,
'so a whole new range of biological machines could use the colour change
'just like the squid does so effortlessly.'
This is some images of what the squid cells look like under the microscope.
-You can really see the coloured patterns of reflectin that are formed.
-It's really beautiful.
It's kind of psychedelic.
'Reflectin is the protein that makes this spectacle possible.'
'The team ordered a series of biobricks online
'and used them to build a biological circuit
'that could make the same protein that the squid does.'
-So does it work?
-It does and I can prove it.
So we have the purified reflectin that we made using this circuit,
and we've taken and spun it onto, well, a little disc of silicon,
so you can see the iridescent patterns on it as I move it.
-Looks like a drop of oil.
-But what's really cool about it is if you breathe on it.
-What, just breathe on it?
Oh, cool! So that's the squid protein reacting to my breath?
Yeah, it's the humidity in the air you're breathing out that's making the structure of the protein change.
You're very, very casual about this
but we've gone from a squid in a restaurant that can change colour,
even though it was dead, to getting that synthesised in a cell factory
via the internet, onto a plate
that can change colour when I breathe on it.
In a summer, yeah.
In a summer.
It's almost annoying, to hear you say that,
cos the prospect of me doing that
five years ago, ten years ago in the lab
would have taken, you know, hundreds of thousands of pounds
and years, but you can knock that out in a summer.
It's the beauty of synthetic biology
is that we don't have to go through...
Quite a lot of the hard work has been done for us.
The work we've done this summer has now been put back into the registry
so all the parts for making biobricks
are now something that anyone next year,
or a research lab right now, can e-mail
and ask for the DNA to be sent out,
and then they can start working on reflectin
and that's what's really exciting
about the open-source ideal,
is that now it's out there, anyone can use it.
In a squid, this is a survival mechanism,
but Cat and her team have succeeded in turning it into a component
that future scientists can use to do anything they want with.
They're already thinking about sending
tools like these into water supplies to detect pollutants
and then change colour just like the squid does.
It's an astonishing idea that life can be programmed like a machine
and that the components can be simply ordered online from a standardised tool kit,
and this means that engineers and computer scientists
and mathematicians can come together with biologists.
This is a totally new way of doing science, and it's happening now.
You might think that harnessing the full power of synthetic biology was just out of reach.
Well, that's not the way they see it here in California.
In a sense, they're taking this idea of playing God
and turning it into a business, potentially a rather lucrative one.
This is the other end of synthetic biology.
However you feel about big corporations,
they have access to the kind of cash that makes the most exciting science possible.
This is Amyris, one of the world's biggest synthetic biology operations.
Their aim is simple - to develop technology that might just change the world.
And Dr Jack Newman is leading the project here.
Right, so this looks very familiar to me, molecular biology lab,
been in a few labs like this where genetics happen. What's going on?
Well, you see here, it's a lot of dedicated talented folks
that know a lot about what goes on inside yeast.
What we're doing is reprogramming that yeast
to meet the petroleum needs of the world.
This isn't tinkering with biological circuits,
this is synthetic biology at full tilt.
Petroleum fuels our world,
we have tremendous energy need both in the US, in Europe, in Asia
and here we're coming up with new solutions for meeting that energy or fuel need.
-By producing it using cells.
-And you can do that?
-Absolutely, that's what I'm going to show you.
This is synthetic biology on an industrial scale.
Scientists and robots working together.
Their aim, to reprogramme old-fashioned brewers' yeast,
by re-engineering the cell, so that rather than producing alcohol, it now produces diesel.
What you're doing, in terms of making this biological machine,
is getting it to do something that nothing in nature has ever done before.
Not quite nothing, actually, so the molecule farnesene,
which is the root of our diesel, is actually the same oil that coats the outside of apples.
It's the oil that nature uses to repel the water off of apples. It also happens to be in diesel fuel.
Kick-starting this fuel factory couldn't be easier.
Grab a toothpick, get a little bit of yeast,
and this is a 96 well plate, which is 96 little fermenters basically filled with sugar water.
Put some yeast in there, it'll start making that sugar into diesel.
Give it a shot.
I remember this sort of laborious work from work from my days in the lab.
You've got a bunch of toothpicks there, why don't you do the next 100?
-Um, I'm OK with that, thanks.
-Here's another way to do it.
What you see there is about 10,000 yeast and what the machine has done is image that with the camera,
it's taken a picture of that, and it knows where every colony is.
I've done this kind of stuff, it takes about two weeks, and you're saying that this can do...how many?
Just did 100 in the time it took you to do one.
The speed is phenomenal!
The core idea is that oil, which gets made from biological organisms,
-takes hundreds of thousands of years to produce a barrel...
And this process, using yeast...
Can take a day.
All they need is some basic old-school lab equipment,
and with it, I can see exactly what this new school of science is all about.
Now, what are we seeing here?
Here's one where you can see actually the farnesene on the inside,
see that bright little droplet?
So they just produce the diesel inside the cell
and then it just secretes out?
Just comes out in little droplets
and those little droplets come together the same way sort of
when salad dressing is separating, the oil goes to the top.
So if I pull focus from the bottom upwards then I can see the cells.
The cells will be on the bottom because they're heavy.
And if I keep going then, bing, you get the oil.
Yep, and the oil'll be at the top because it's lighter,
you know, oil rises to the top.
Crikey, that's amazing.
Scale this up, and you're on your way to having an industrial operation.
This is the pilot plant,
this is where we take what you saw at that small scale
and take it up to the next level.
Inside these tanks, the same process is happening
that I saw under the microscope,
except instead of it being on a slide,
it's in these massive vats.
And at the end of this production line is the simplest process of all, separation.
There goes the yeast and the nasty bit...
here comes the fuel.
-That's diesel. That's diesel right there.
-That's just waste on that side?
-That's yeast and water, diesel on this side.
Do you think this is going to replace oil out of the ground, fossil fuels?
-I'll be excited about a billion litres.
-A billion litres?
So how long is it going to be
before you can scale this already pretty impressive set-up to a billion litres?
So, we're already manufacturing on three continents,
we're in South America, North America and Europe,
and have two more major facilities under construction.
Er, you know. We're ramping this just absolutely fast as we can.
There are strict rules preventing synthetic cells from leaving the lab,
but the things they make, like the fuel, can.
It is still diesel, though, and still produces CO2 emissions,
so this car, fuelled by synethic biology,
is a symbol of the power this technology offers.
And the questions it raises for all of us.
Where should we draw the line between what synthetic biology
might be capable of doing and what we think is safe or desirable?
The closer you look, the more it appears to be an uneasy bargain.
Now there's a question we have to address before we go too far.
Should synthetic biology be allowed out of the lab at all?
Now this is a legitimate question,
albeit one fuelled by Hollywood, who imagine that synthetic lifeforms can escape from the lab
and go down drains and crawl up into your cappuccino,
but how real is that threat?
Leading scientists in synthetic biology have called for added measures
to prevent the accidental release of synthetic organisms into the wild.
So it seems that there is a contradiction here.
On the one hand, synthetic lifeforms should be contained within the lab,
and on the other they should be out in the world, actually doing stuff for our benefit.
Whether out in the world, or in the lab, the key is that the scientists
have control over the life-forms they create,
and the principles behind that are simple.
Now scientists design synthetic cells, so they have an inbuilt safety mechanism,
and they get called kill switches, which is slightly overly dramatic.
But I can show you how they work using just a box of matches.
In the olden days, matches could be struck on any surface.
But then safety conscious matchmakers introduced a feature which meant they could only ignite
in very precisely controlled conditions - that is the side of the box.
And that is the safety match.
Now kill switches work in much the same way.
The synthetic cells can only grow in very precisely controlled conditions.
On top of that, once they are alive, they have to be continually fed,
otherwise, just like the flame, they won't survive.
Pretty foolproof, except safety measures are never 100% effective.
In the right circumstances, even a safety match will still ignite.
We know life does tend to find a way.
Synthetic biology is about creating and manipulating lifeforms.
Things that grow, feed and reproduce.
This is a high stakes game.
Scientists can have control, but there is always a level of risk.
Jim Thomas works for a watchdog called Etcetera.
Having called for a ban on synthetic biology in its very early days,
the group have evolved their views, along with the technology.
So if you initial concern was the release of synthetic organisms into the wild,
how has that changed over the years, as the technology has developed?
Well, we're still very concerned about the release of synthetic organisms.
We still think that's a no-no.
But what's become clearer to us is that the bigger issues around synthetic biology
are how it's turning into an industry, and what industry is doing with that technology.
Because the synthetic organisms that are going to be used have to eat something.
What they have to eat is sugar - biomass. It's this stuff, it's the living world,
And you have an industry whose basic approach is to take living biomass,
liquidate it, feed it to synthetic organisms in order to create the plastics
and the fuels that previously were made from petroleum,
and as an industrial model that's a terrible industrial model.
Living things become part of these biological machines,
not just as components in the circuit, but as a feedstock.
Large companies are buying up bits of land so that they can grow sugarcane or eucaplypus,
so that they can feed those to vats of what will ultimately be synthetic microbes to make fuels.
As the global population soars, Jim's concern is that feeding these synthetic lifeforms
could ultimately threaten the livelihood of some of the poorest people in the world.
Synthetic biology has become a technological force,
and questions about how it should used and controlled are unavoidable.
But there's a darker side to consider.
What if this technology was used to intentionally do harm?
A residential street, like so many others across America.
Dr Rob Carlson is an advisor to the UN and FBI,
and they ask his advice on the threats that could come from this field.
He knows his way around the subculture of synthetic biology.
He's brought me here, to introduce me to some people he knows.
Rob, we are a long way from high-tech labs and universities. What are we doing here?
Well, biotechnology has become less expensive and more accessible over the last 20 years,
especially in the last 10 years.
You can set up a lab in a kitchen or a garage or a store front anywhere around here.
So you're saying that in some garage over there, in the middle of suburbia,
some kid could be doing real synthetic biology.
In principle yeah.
I've seen that scientists can order parts they want, wherever they can get online.
So what would be available to someone who wanted to do harm?
So there are many parts in the registry. You can use them for making many different things.
Making biofuels, making vaccines.
There are some parts in here that look like they might have nefarious use,
so there are some viral vectors that could be used to infect human cells with some things.
They're very difficult to use.
They're more of an art than a bit of technology that anybody can make use of.
Now I'm going to push you on this, because you say the parts are individually innocuous,
but if I wanted to build a nailbomb, I could go to any hardware store and get all of the ingredients.
Individually, they're not for making a bomb, but you put them together in the right way
and you've got something lethal.
Surely you could say the same thing about the parts?
There aren't any parts in the biobrick registry that I'm aware of that can be used to cause any harm.
But a nail is for putting pieces of wood together, it's not for killing people.
I understand that, but there aren't any pieces that look even like a nail in the biobricks registry,
which is not to say that you can't make those parts, it's just they're not in the registry.
Over time we'll have many more parts that become available that are so useful,
but I think you've brought up an interesting point,
which is given the difficulty in building anything nefarious,
using biological parts right now, in this way we're discussing,
it's a lot easier to just go build a nailbomb if you want to cause a problem.
It's easier to fixate on the threat than it is to embrace the opportunity from these new technologies.
Those opportunities are all around us. We can go and have a look just a couple of blocks away.
So the idea here is you pay a monthly fee, just like you're going to a gym,
and instead you're doing biology here.
This is DIY biology.
And it's already become a movement, known as Biohacking.
This is really cool.
Really interesting this. It's like a very community-based project,
but they're doing real experimental science,
and the strangest thing about it is, even though there are school-age kids here,
if you just look on the shelves, this is standard lab equipment,
expensive equipment that you'd see in any hospital lab
or university lab, and it's just here in this community centre.
This is unusual. I've not seen this before.
So some of these guys call themselves biohackers,
which is quite a cool name but it also has a real,
quite a negative connotation about it. How does that work?
That depends on who you're talking to. They don't think it's negative.
There are hackers taking things apart, putting them back together,
whether it's computers or cars or boats.
Hacking is part of the way new stuff gets built.
Hacking is part of innovation.
We piloted a class this last month
where we took an E. coli bacteria and we brought in green fluorescent protein,
so it basically glows in the dark.
It's a protein from jellyfish.
-Can you show me that?
Seeing such a powerful science in here does throw the biologist in me a bit off balance.
What this is is a bacteria, a naturally occurring bacteria,
that some kid in this garage space has put a gene from a jellyfish in.
And the jellyfish kind of has a superpower of being fluorescent.
It glows in the dark basically.
So we borrowed that one piece and stuck in into this bacteria
that we can grow a lot easier than we can grow a jellyfish.
So I've done this a few years ago in the lab,
but you've done this in a garage... Who did this?
Rank amateurs, people who'd never picked up pipettes before,
we trained them in about an hour.
It wasn't a big deal, a lot of the things we got off the internet,
a lot of things came together really easily for amateurs.
That represents how the game has changed so significantly
in way less than a decade.
I mean, how long would that have taken five years ago?
That is a game-changer, I think.
In 2008, three scientists won a Nobel prize for doing this
and now anyone can do it in a garage.
You ain't seen nothin' yet.
So, what comes next? What's the ambition?
Well, like, I can see the day
whenever people are growing plastics, medicine...
You know, I think the future looks a lot less like
a big refinery stack and a lot more like a big brewing vat.
You know what it reminds me of? The legend of Microsoft,
that it started in Bill Gates' garage
where they were building computers from scratch in a garage
and now it is this, you know, global, enormous corporation.
Rather than being a backdrop for dark, scientific arts,
suburbia is clearly a place where synthetic biology can flourish.
So, from what I've seen, whether it's driven by universities,
large corporations or even bio-hackers,
it's clear this technology has breathtaking potential.
The innovation offered up by this science
is about to take us across another boundary
Hi, how are you?
Not just taking synthetic biology out into the world
but putting it inside people.
Attempting the impossible is what scientists
at the NASA Ames research facility are pretty good at.
Do you get blase about working here?
This is a lifelong childhood dream of mine.
I will come to work sometimes and I have to pinch myself.
Dr David Loftus is a medic to the astronauts.
He's a man with a rather unique commute into the office.
What is that?
That is the air intake for the world's largest wind tunnel
it's just a fantastic structure. It's just huge.
-You can put an actual, full-sized aircraft inside.
David is not just planning to put synthetic biology into outer space,
but into astronauts, to help them deal with something
that Californians often take for granted.
We've got some UV radiation to deal with,
here in our convertible, from the sun,
but in space you've got particle radiation and high-energy radiation
that can really be quite damaging
and potentially fatal to the astronauts.
What's synthetic biology going to... How is that going to help?
We've come up with a technology that's pretty nifty
that allows us to engineer organisms and cells,
to make therapeutic molecules
that can be directly released into the body.
You're going to take engineered bacteria
and put them into astronauts to treat them for radiation sickness?
It seems pretty far-fetched
but that's exactly what we've been thinking about.
Putting synthetic biology inside people
has never been done before. It's unknown territory.
The key is locking the engineered bacteria away
and safely containing them.
And to do that, NASA is using nanotechnology
to make something truly remarkable.
-This is just a normal syringe needle...
-A normal syringe needle.
..and on the top, this is a mould...
Exactly, it's a plastic mould that's porous.
And needle goes in this liquid?
Exactly, you just plunge it right in.
-Turn the vacuum on...
..and you should see things happening almost right away.
Carbon nanotubes suspended in the liquid are drawn onto the mould.
Ha, look at that it's instantaneous!
The result? A biocapsule.
It's gone black.
Turn the vacuum off and you can pull it out of the solution.
Well, that was not very hard.
And let it dry, it's very quick,
and you can just take it off of the tubing
and there's the capsule.
That's it, I've just made a biocapsule.
You've just made a biocapsule.
It may not look like much, but the genius of this biocapsule
comes by way of the tiny molecules that make up its structure,
a substance that the body won't reject.
if we zoom in at higher power,
-we start to appreciate the pores of this structure.
You can actually see the bundles of carbon nanotubes
forming this meshwork across the surface.
The holes in the mesh are too small for the synthetic cells to escape,
but just the right size for the smaller therapeutic molecules
to leave the capsule and enter the body.
We'll get a sense for how it works
once it's actually implanted into a human,
so this is a schematic representation
of how we might implant the capsule under the skin and then the capsule
could potentially respond to the radiation exposure
and once it responds it will release the therapeutic molecule
or the protective molecule altering the physiology of the astronaut
and protecting that astronaut
from whatever threat exposure has happened.
You can think of this as a completely novel
drug delivery system.
So, it's triggered by the thing that it's trying to prevent.
-Exactly. That's the beauty of the system.
-It's so elegant.
We really think it is.
So, how close are you to getting it actually into a human test?
I think it's going to be ready in about two to five years.
-So, just around the corner?
-Just around the corner.
NASA are famous for their giant feats of machine engineering
but now they can apply their prowess at a microscopic level,
making biological machines.
It's the ground floor of a defining technology
and it might not only be for astronauts but every one of us.
Of all the weird things that I've seen,
I think this one is the one that impresses me the most,
because it's so real,
this means that a whole new range of biological machines
can be designed in the knowledge
that they can sit inside of us, actually under our skin.
As this technology is pushed further and further,
the line between what's intriguing and unsettling becomes even finer,
and the idea of playing God seems to draw closer.
But there's one corner that's left to turn.
Being able to programme biological machines
by having control of microbes is one thing.
But what if we took that control to more complex life forms?
What about if it was much more personal,
if we could actually control what's in our bodies or even in here?
Well, that would take us to a whole new level.
A level that takes the principles of synthetic biology
to the most precious part of our anatomy.
To the root of art, culture and the full spectrum of our emotions.
This is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,
a place where people who think differently
can explore the limits of their field.
Professor Ed Boyden began his academic career here
almost two decades ago at just 15 years of age,
today he's driving a totally new field called Synthetic Neurobiology.
Ed, this looks like an electronics lab to me, not a biology lab,
so how did you get here?
Well, I actually started out my education as an electrical engineer,
trying to build new kinds of computer and to figure out
how to repair and alter systems such as submarines
and quantum computers and other things like that,
and I got really interested in trying to engineer
the most complex computer there is, the brain.
Turns out the brain uses the same kinds of electrical pulses
to compute and communicate that computers do,
and if we could try to control those elements, that would allow us
to enter information into them, like you can enter information
into a computer circuit. So, what we're trying to do now
is use these illuminators, these lasers, to do exactly that.
But let me show you how it works, first.
What they've done here is taken a light source
and connected it directly into the mouse's brain.
Every time the mouse goes to this point
a pulse of light is being delivered
to a very specific point in the brain.
That point is actually a place deep in the brain
where neurons that mediate reward and pleasure, and so on,
are thought to be residing. So, basically, the mouse
is going to this little portal and putting its nose in there.
Every time it does that, he gets a pulse of light,
and he's, sort of, working for light.
This other portal, the mouse doesn't get anything,
so he prefers to go to that spot.
But I still don't understand how you actually make the brain
sensitive to light, because it's not, it's inside our dark skulls.
Well, neurons in the brain don't normally respond to light.
What we have to do is to find molecules that do
and put them into the neurons.
And it turns out that species out in the wild like this green algae
have to sense light in order to photosynthesize.
This species of algae has an eye spot that senses light
and converts light into electricity. That's how it's able to navigate,
by turning these little flagellas
so it can steer it toward the surface of pond.
If you zoom in on this little eye spot,
you'll find proteins that, when they are hit by light,
will actually generate little electrical pulses
and that's exactly what we need if we want to control a neuron.
Ed has programmed a virus to travel to specific neurons in the brain
and deposit the light sensitive molecule,
tiling the surface of the brain cells like solar panels.
This turns those specific neurons, and only those neurons,
into on/off switches activated by light.
So, this is the, sort of, synthetic biology angle to it,
you're taking algae and putting it into the mouse,
but it's, sort of, another level above this because you're also
controlling that by using an electrical circuit.
Effectively, this is plugged into the mouse's brain
and turning it on, which makes this mouse, effectively, a cyborg.
Absolutely. What we're trying to do is deliver information to the brain
so we can control its natural processing.
To do that, we've been working on ways
to go beyond just one light source.
For example, now we can beam light all over the brain in a 3D pattern,
turning on and off the circuits that are involved with emotions,
decision making, sensations and actions.
We're in the matrix here, aren't we? Is this not exactly the way
brain control is going to be in the future?
I think science fiction can be really inspiring for new technologies.
I mean, it sounds potentially terrifying.
Well, the ability to control brain circuits with precision
we're regarding as a scientific tool to allow us to understand brain
and also as a medical prototype.
If you look at the world, there's something like a billion people
who have some kind of brain disorder and many of them
like Alzheimer's and multiple sclerosis,
stroke, traumatic brain injury,
there's basically no treatment for those things.
The 20th century was all about pharmacology, right?
Drugs for treating epilepsy, Parkinson's disease and so on,
but the problem is, if you bathe the brain in a substance
you're going to affect normal neurons as well as neurons you want to fix,
and that can cause side effects.
So, imagine that we go back to example of epilepsy.
What if we could turn off just the little piece of brain,
just for the time of a seizure and block it?
And therefore we won't have the side effects associated with it
other than that time.
So, what you're trying to do is hit the defective bit, ignore the rest?
Having control over simple cells is one thing
but introducing control into our brains?
Well, that is something else,
this is the absolute cutting edge, not just of the science,
but also of the ethical debate.
We're talking about introducing control
into the most complex circuitry that there is,
our own minds.
I've seen some extraordinary things on this trip...
All based on the idea that you can treat the natural world
as spare parts for machines that can be rebuilt and reprogrammed.
And the result? Entirely new lifeforms
or biological machines that tread a line
somewhere between controversy and opportunity.
And so, it's easy to see
why some people might think of it as playing God.
What's really struck me about all of this,
whether you're in a small community garage or a colossal corporate lab,
is the number of people who have access to this technology
and the speed at which it's happened has been breathtaking.
Now, whatever you think of the uneasy bargain
that surrounds synthetic biology, one thing is absolutely clear.
We have created for ourselves
unprecedented power over life itself.