E.O. Wilson: Synthetic Biology Will Radically Change the World
The legendary biologist talks about ultimate biology breakthroughs we can expect in the next several decades and how the creation of artificial life, coupled with the advancement of artificial intelligence, will change the human race.
Edward Osborne Wilson is an American biologist (Myrmecology, a branch of entomology), researcher (sociobiology, biodiversity), theorist (consilience, biophilia), and naturalist (conservationism). Wilson is known for his career as a scientist, his advocacy for environmentalism, and his secular humanist ideas concerned with religious and ethical matters.
A Harvard professor for four decades, he has written twenty books, won two Pulitzer prizes, and discovered hundreds of new species. Considered to be one of the world's greatest living scientists, Dr. Wilson is often called "the father of biodiversity," (a word that he coined). He is the Pellegrino University Research Professor, Emeritus in Entomology for the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University and a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. He is a Humanist Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism.
E.O. Wilson: I like to think that ultimate biology, ultimate biology is going to emerge within the next several decades and it's going to be in three domains. One has already begun. And that is the creation of artificial life. And scientists have just very recently put together, from chemicals off the shelf, a genome that is of the entire DNA of a bacterium, inserted it into a bacterial shell and created a functioning reproducing bacterium that way; chemicals off the shelf; a very simple organism. Now this is momentous because it means that as we develop this technology, we're going to eventually be able to produce multicellular organisms and new kinds of species. We'll have that capacity and it's going to raise all kinds of questions, certainly opportunities. And among the opportunities that it will present, if we don't let the excesses and the deviations and auxiliary consequences unforeseen overwhelm us, is that we're going to be able to produce improvements in the productivity of our food plants and organisms that are vital for the maintenance of human-dominated environments.
I say that in that way because I also believe it's going to be absolutely necessary for the welfare of planet Earth that we leave a large part of the planet to the 8 million other species that occupy Earth with us because that's the shield that already is in place to which we are exquisitely well adapted. But that's called, that creation of life is called synthetic biology and mark it well. Synthetic biology is just taking off and it means it's going to have an impact in a lot of ways. And it will segue in its consequences and what it reveals about the nature of life and humanity itself as it comes into the era of artificial intelligence and robotics in a big way.
There is ongoing at the present time, I know I just met with a number of them, something of a controversy between the artificial intelligence and humanoid robotic creators, a controversy over whether we're going to duplicate the brain digitally. Most think that that can be done. That's not exactly how neurons really work; they work en masse in creating waves of activities that then trigger other waves, hormonal release, and so on. But against that viewpoint also exists the analog robotic thinkers who believe the human brain is just so thoroughly analog and that it doesn't really work digitally, but it works on activation of masses of neurons, layers, loci, and web work that passes varying degrees subjectively felt through other pathways and centers until finally they reach decision points, mostly in the subconscious brain. So we have coming ahead in the development of these various fields the capacity, one, to immensely alter, once we know the full genomes and artificial intelligence, when synthetic biology is advanced, profoundly alter food plants and almost create new ones that can substantially increase the per capita food supply of the world with enormous consequences.
And then on the other hand we have the capacity in time of producing robots that can think like humans and on much lower wattage than our present robots. The human body and the human brain works incidentally at something like 1000th the energy input of an advanced robot. So that's another direction that’s going to be taken. And what's running through your mind, if you're listening to me or seeing me now is, "Uh-oh, if we keep on going can the robots with their artificial organisms around them and their intelligence and ability to make decisions then replace us?" No way. That's great for Hollywood, but since we're going to be approaching robot capacity and genome modification of other organisms, and then even ourselves, we can change our own genomes in some respects, we're going to see the risk of giving control to any other intelligent agent and make sure that it's just not going to happen.
Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton
Legendary biologist Edward O. Wilson explores three realms of ultimate biology from which we should expect major breakthroughs over the next several decades. Each is rooted in synthetic biology, which makes the creation of artificial life possible. Wilson's latest book is titled "The Meaning of Human Existence."
Explore how alcohol affects your brain, from the first sip at the bar to life-long drinking habits.
- Alcohol is the world's most popular drug and has been a part of human culture for at least 9,000 years.
- Alcohol's effects on the brain range from temporarily limiting mental activity to sustained brain damage, depending on levels consumed and frequency of use.
- Understanding how alcohol affects your brain can help you determine what drinking habits are best for you.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.
- A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
- It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
- Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.
Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.
Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons
13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.
It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.
But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.
John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."
What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.
Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.
The exploding popularity of the keto diet puts a less used veggie into the spotlight.
- The cauliflower is a vegetable of choice if you're on the keto diet.
- The plant is low in carbs and can replace potatoes, rice and pasta.
- It can be eaten both raw and cooked for different benefits.
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