From cells to electronics?

Monday, June 11th, 2012 by Roberto Saracco

From time to time I run onto some news of bio-engineering where scientists manage to manipulate a cell genome to shift the cell behavior towards some goals, like eating pollutant out of the ocean.

A marine sponge has been taught to produce silicon fibers...

Now I saw a news of researchers of the University of California in Santa Barbara that applied molecular biology and principles of evolution to create a protein that in turns can become a  tools to create new structures of silicon.

The protein has been called “silicatein X1″ and can make both silica-protein fibers and folded sheet of silica-protein.

The basic idea is to condition (or steer) the evolution of some living form, in this case a sponge that has evolved in a way to create a mesh of silica threads forming its infrastructure, to create silicon infrastructure with specific properties. Clearly, the possibility to transform a sponge into a factory to produce an iPad is beyond the realm of imagination, not to say of feasibility, but one can imagine these sponges to produce some useful silicon substrate by extracting the right molecules from the ocean water. n the future chip manufacturing may well start not from raw silica but from the harvesting of sponges that have created purified silica just right for certain applications. We already have sponges that create a sort of fiberglass that has good properties for light communications. The work of these researchers is to give evolution a little wedge, tweaking with the genome, to produce exactly what they want.
And they would like to do that not changing a living form but through artificial cells that can be engineered to do just that. This is, actually, the promises of this research.

Craig Venter has recently declared that he feels we are just few years away from the possibility of creating life from scratch. This may rise, it is rising, many questions and concern. However, creating an artificial machine to produce what we want is something we are already used to. The difference is that this new machine will be done using “Nature’s tricks”, and this will be a first for the Homo Habilis!


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