Several of my newsletters in the last few weeks have reported on a recent trip to California during which I visited Google, Facebook, and Udacity — remarkable companies undertaking projects with the potential to change the world.
But of all the fascinating experiences on the trip, the best might have been the visit to my friend Lynn Rothschild’s lab at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif.
Lynn and her students are developing projects that blend biology and technology in mind-bending ways. As a synthetic biologist and astrobiologist, Lynn studies the building blocks of life.
She thinks both about where life might exist on other planets, the clouds of Venus, for instance, and about new ways to assemble those building blocks here on Earth. The latter effort holds amazing potential for practical applications, discoveries that could change our lives and the materials we encounter every day.
Lynn coaches the Stanford-Brown team in the international iGEM challenge, a competition for students to create "bio-bricks" — useful DNA sequences that can be inserted into cells to give them certain desirable properties, like water resistance or tolerance to high temperatures.
The idea is that bio-bricks, like a kind of DNA LEGOs, could be assembled into basic living organisms or materials that could be useful to humans.
One example might be engineering a cell that generates cotton fibers. Assemble the right combination of DNA, and there could be a way to produce whole pieces of cloth in a factory setting (rather than growing cotton it in a field and weaving it on a loom).
Another idea — the team's 2013 entry — is BioWires, which embeds individual atoms of silver into strands of DNA, resulting in nanowires that conduct electricity.
In 2012, Lynn's team took genetic features from a variety of organisms in harsh places on Earth, life surviving in extreme cold, or low oxygen, or with high radiation, or almost no water, and assembled them into one tough bacteria that potentially could survive on Mars.
They dubbed it the “hell cell.” Those features, in theory, could be paired with still more genetic features, the thread production, for instance, and sent to Mars to replicate and grow ahead of a human mission to the planet.
Last year, Lynn challenged the team to solve a problem her NASA colleagues had experienced here on Earth, losing scientific sensing equipment in delicate environments, potentially polluting them.
Lynn's suggestion to her students was to build a biodegradable drone. The team, which in 2014 included Spelman College, proved up to the challenge: they used a dried fungus for the body instead of plastic, and added proteins from wasp saliva to make it waterproof.
The team believes they'll eventually be able to print the circuitry right onto the body in silver, and then find ways to power biological motors.
The team’s project this year is still a secret, but it’s even more intricate.
It was a privilege to see the pioneering work Lynn and her students are doing in the lab, with applications from medicine to materials. It was a great reminder after visiting three of Silicon Valley’s most innovative technology companies that a better future will come not just through breakthroughs in computing and communication, but through advances in biology as well.
Newt Gingrich is a former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives (1995-1999) and a 2012 Republican presidential candidate. He has published 24 books, including 14 fiction and nonfiction New York Times best-sellers. He and his wife, Callista, produce historical documentaries, including "America at Risk," "Nine Days that Changed the World," and "Ronald Reagan: Rendezvous with Destiny." Gingrich is a CNN contributor, and a senior scientist at Gallup. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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