Team:INSA Toulouse/contenu/human practice/ethical aspects/biology and electronics



Ethical Aspects

Should synthetic biology design mimicry of electronic logical rules?

Nature has always been a source of knowledge and discovery. This is true, particularly in synthetic biology, in which the artificial shuffling of genes biodiversity inside living organisms permits to modify in a spectacular way the natural metabolism of these organisms.

Today, this process goes further due to molecular engineering which enables us to design new proteins and create new genes not present in nature.

The iGEM Toulouse 2013 project aims to make engineered bacteria compute some digital additions. The human numerical calculation is totally abstract and we may wonder what would look like an organism with an “electronic” mind, mind thought perfect from a human point of view.

Electronics, a science roughly one century old, allowed men to develop most if not all of the today technologies. Electronics is now an integral part of our lives as it is found in our cellular phones, our laptops, etc. For example, we all try to find an equilibrium between our biological memory (our brain) and our digital memory (our expensive smartphone). On next year, in 45 of the 50 American states, handwriting, this ancestral muscular continuum between organic thinking and information sharing will become optional in favor to electronic writing. It was therefore quite natural to us to try applying the basics of this science that brought so much progress, in the new science of synthetic biology.

In fact, we know for example that a human brain can calculate approx. 1 exaflops (10^18 FLoating point Operations Per Second), about 100 times more than the most powerful of all today computers (Tianhe-2 : 0.033 exaflops). Synthetic biology could be at the origin of a new scientific revolution, by allowing the construction and use of biological computers, directly inspired by electronics. Trying to build a combined electro-biological computer thus seems full of promise in terms of calculation power.

However if synthetic biology can create a computer, inspired by electronics, we must not forget that no electronic computer can, today, exceed the computing power of a human brain. From the point of view of computing power, Biology seems superior to electronics and if we try to learn from electronics to create a biological computer, we may become limited by the model and never reach the potential promised by applying electronics to synthetic biology.

Calculation, inducted in the living, should thus be based on what works in nature, the human brain, in order to not become the shameful little brother of electronics. Moreover, contrary to electronic binary (0 or 1) language, organic thinking is in most of the case a continuum between 0 and 1. How can an “in essence analogical” system could deal with an imposed digital thinking? Maybe it isn’t the optimal way to construct an biological computer. Actually, a living computer seems to be closer from a quantum computer, with its infinity of values conducting to a phenomenal power calculation, rather than a classical ON/OFF computer. Implementing a binary system in a living organism could maybe only conduct to an evolution of the global system to return to a complete digital system. Even if we only think to drawbacks of an unstable system during the short period of an iGEM project, we could maybe take advantage of this natural evolution of a synthetic system. This could be an assay for taking advantages of both systems: let us try genetic evolution (or maximization?) with a binary system. With the correct screening, that should force cells to give a result of artificial calculation, we could maybe combine the analogical advantages in a digital system and get an hybrid calculation power, found to be of higher calculus power than a strictly binary one.

Finally, it should be noted that although in this project, we were strongly inspired by computing, the means used to implement the calculation machinery are very different from those used in electronics.

Since the biological computer has just begun to take shape in our minds, it is important to explore all its possibilities. The Toulouse iGEM 2013 project does not want just to copy electronics to implement it in the living microorganisms, it wants to show that human and abstract thinking, such as calculus, can be obtained from engineered bacteria, by forming a network in which they communicate together to accomplish a specified complex task.

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