Saturday, May 22, 2010

Life Creates Life

The first artificial life form has been created by human biological life. Humans have crossed the Rubicon of creation by bypassing natural evolution and by designing the first artificial life form, have opened the floodgates of life’s evolutionary future.
Craig Venter and his team were the first scientists to sequence the human genome and have now created the first artificial life-form; a tiny new bacterium or synthetic cell, controlled by human engineered DNA, with its genetic instructions determined by human life.
The scientists have made a synthetic copy of the genome of a bacterium- Mycoplasma mycoides. This man-made genome was then transplanted into a related bacterium- Mycoplasma capricolum. This process “rebooted” the cell so that it was controlled by the synthetic genome, transforming it into another species. The cell has since divided more than a billion times.
The creation of this living organism is the culmination of 15 years of research, costing more than $47 million. But the cost is miniscule in comparison with its glittering potential benefits. It promises a new industry, generating synthetic bacteria capable of cleaning up pollution, producing new forms of green chemicals and fuels, capturing CO2 in designed algae and providing vaccines against disease.

The creation of life has been an ongoing human endeavour for at least 50 years, since Stanley Miller successfully synthesised amino acids, essential for the formation of proteins and life, using simple molecules such as water, ammonia and methane, exposed to an energy source such as ultraviolet radiation.

Since that time a number of paths have been taken by researchers to recreate the genesis of life including-
Resurrecting extinct species- such as the marsupial Tasmanian tiger and Woolly mammoth- extracting still viable DNA and implanting it in related species such as the Tasmanian devil and African elephant. But the notion of resurrecting Einstein or Shakespeare as present-day geniuses is highly doubtful, because evolution is not just a product of genes, but is a dance between genetics and the environment.

Re-engineering current species- reversing evolutionary changes and genetic switches to recreate the previous ancestor; for example producing teeth in chickens as birds related to ancient dinosaurs. The importance of this technique is that it demonstrates life as a continuum, with many of the genes from yeast and fruit flies still existing in modern humans.

Cloning new species- this can be achieved using the technique of hybrid speciation, which involves first mating two closely related species, such as single-cell yeasts. A small percentage of the offspring spontaneously clone themselves and some also change gender, thereby creating a new species of yeast.

The current artificial life-form has been created by manipulating of the code of life– the chemical bases needed to develop artificial chromosomes and therefore novel amino acids, proteins and life.

Producing new life-forms to order by designing novel DNA, is a comparatively recent process. It is a direct consequence of recent successes in sequencing DNA as well as the creation of component genome databases. This facilitates the assembly of genetic buuilding blocks into living systems in the same way that electronic components are combined to manufacture circuits and chips or software modules to create business services.

Flexible and reliable fabrication technology, together with standardised methods and design libraries have enabled a new generation of biological engineers to already create new organisms from biological components from the ground up, providing the basis for the new science of synthetic biology.

Molecular biology has previously largely been applied as a reductive science, but now synthetic biologists are building organic machines from interchangeable DNA parts that work inside living cells- deriving energy, processing information and reproducing.

Concurrently with developments in synthetic biology, another new form of life- Intelligent Software Agents, have been developed by computer scientists, representing artificial life in the form of adaptable evolutionary software programs. These are designed to provide autonomous and cooperative problem-solving support to humans through the application of artificial intelligence- primarily evolutionary, swarm and knowledge-based algorithms.

But the Holy Grail of life’s creation – evolving a living cell from scratch- has yet to be achieved. This is because many separate initial evolutionary processes have to take place first, including the evolution of- cell containment vesicles, an optimal genetic code such as DNA or RNA with the machinery to translate it into amino acids and proteins; the incredibly complex epigenetic processes providing signaling pathways from the cell’s environment and methods to fine tune its basic DNA; plus the machinery of cell replication, development, apoptosis and metabolism etc

In a sense Venter’s achievement has relied heavily on hijacking the machinery of existing cellular operation– much as Einstein did by borrowing Riemann’s mathematical framework for his theory of relativity. In other words he piggy-backed a free ride to life.

But this doesn’t detract in any way from the monumental human achievement in understanding better the enigma of life and creating it afresh in its full glory.

Because of this breakthrough it will now be possible to create not only new bacteria, but eventually the complete spectrum of new life-forms – plants and animals, including perhaps a new species of humans. In other words bringing artificial life from the super-natural to the human-natural realm of creation.

This glittering potential is balanced by unforeseeable risks; a synthetic bacterium With the capacity to mutate and proliferate outside the lab, doing untold damage to the environment by accelerating new disease pathogens and affecting the genetic blueprint of crops and animals including humans. It also will have the capability to be used as a biochemical weapon.

But science’s Pandora’s Box has been opened yet again. Now there are three players in the great game of life- biological, artificial and virtual.
All three will have to learn to co-exist and accommodate with each other; as over time the biological, technological and social barriers dissolve and they eventually merge into a new form- Meta-life.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Managing the Planet

The Director of the Future Planet Research Centre, David Hunter Tow, forecasts
an urgent need to harness the full resources and intelligence of the Web to coordinate and manage major programs relating to global warming and survival of the planet- including its life and human civilization.

The cards are now on the table- the climate skeptics bluff has been called. The latest science suggests that of the critical indicators of the health of the planet, at least three have already passed the critical stage and the remainder are perilously close to the abyss.

These include- biodiversity loss, ozone depletion, ocean warming and acidification, land and freshwater over-use and chemical pollution including nitrogen and phosphorous runoff. Most importantly, at current levels of CO2 accumulation, the maximum 2 degree centigrade threshold increase will be breached within twenty years.

In addition, over the past 50 years the world’s population has almost doubled to 8 billion, global consumption of food and fresh water has more than tripled, fossil fuel use has quadrupled and vertebrates have declined by over thirty percent.

It is clear that managing the planet’s outcomes to provide life with a future is the paramount goal that must focus all humanity’s skills, creativity and knowledge, from now into the far future

Up until comparatively recently, managing resources, infrastructure and catastrophes has been largely an ad hoc affair run on a country rather than regional or global basis. This is not surprising considering the evolution of our civilization, which has been based on a largely competitive, winner-take-all model between individuals, organizations, cities and nation-states.

Over the last few decades however a realization has dawned that this is an extremely inefficient and counter-productive approach and totally unsustainable in the modern carbon-induced warming era. This is particularly the case when it comes to managing critical global issues such as climate change, spread of disease, ecosystem protection and major catastrophes- including mega-droughts, oil-spills and earthquakes.

Although still operating in largely fragmented mode, humans are beginning to mobilise cooperatively, creating global research consortiums, trade and business alliances and knowledge exchange networks. But a lot more is needed to ensure our survival- primarily by becoming a lot cleverer in focusing our scientific, technology and social resources.

One of the most significant advances recently announced, w the European FuturIcT project.

This ambitious European Commission funded billion euro enterprise, was designed to simulate the knowledge resources of the entire planet- not just physical but social and economic, mobilising partners from most of the top university research centres in Europe.

The 'Living Earth Simulator' is a major part of this project originally scheduled to be completed by 2022. It will mine economic, technological, environmental and health data to create a model of the entire planet’s dynamics in real time; applying it to solve major problems relating to these areas.

There is now a vital need to better understand the global interrelationships enmeshing the society in which we live and the effect that these have on the planet as a whole. We also need to know how to leverage the benefits of global social systems, while at the same time limiting any downsides they may generate.

Labelled- 'Reality Mining', the plan was to gather information about every aspect of the living planet including its life-forms and use it to simulate the behaviour and evolution of entire ecosystems and economies; helping predict and prevent future potential crises. The Living Earth Simulator was expected to predict for example, potential economic bubbles, impacts of global warming, pandemics and conflicts and how to best mitigate them.

The FuturicT project since cancelled had the potential to nucleate and accelerate this process operating as an essential catalyst and mobiliser for managing our future. But there are many other advanced projects with the potential to complement this grand design and working in parallel to help complete the big picture.

The focus is on preparing for a smarter future for planet earth- creating solutions for managing more efficiently and reliably the world’s infrastructure, energy, food, water and health. This will be achieved through harnessing the immense power of advanced artificial intelligence, mathematical, computing, communication, control and modelling techniques.

Examples of current myriad hi-tech initiatives include-
self-healing software capable of automatically detecting, identifying, and fixing errors in the programs used in complex systems; a ‘central nervous system’ of ‘smart dust’ for the Earth, in which a trillion sensors will be deployed worldwide to monitor ecosystems, detect earthquakes, predict traffic patterns, and study energy use; a system of computerized agents that can manage energy use in the home, designed to optimize individual electricity usage to improve efficiency of the electricity grid; and leveraging the vast cornucopia of freely available services on the web to build mashups to support humanitarian and disaster relief.

As mentioned, game changing projects such as FuturicT are critical, but managing the planet requires much more- in essence coordinating and focusing the entire knowledge base and mind-power of our civilisation.

This should implemented as a world wide public project, in the same manner as the Internet and Web: with each component of the planet’s intellectual mosaic- individuals, research groups, corporations and governments, contributing and mining their knowledge resources- each according to their creative capacity and expertise.

Such a global vision is too fundamentally vital and complex to be funnelled through individual private organisations, politicians or states. It must instead function as a self-organising supra-national entity- evolving eventually as a largely autonomous system.
Managing the planet therefore will involve the massive task of coordinating thousands of techniques, technologies, systems and initiatives to gain the maximum leverage within the timescale available.

But time now is precious. Most current ‘green’ applications are in the early stages- designed to improve energy efficiency by deploying breakthroughs in sustainable technologies such as solar, wind, biofuels, carbon capture etc. But this is just the beginning of the journey. Copenhagen demonstrated that gaining consensus even for the essential task of implementing a global carbon trading system - so vital in generating the momentum to transition from polluting fossil fuels to green power- is difficult to achieve.

Is this a feasible proposition? Yes, but only by applying adaptive, autonomic system technology, capable of responding dynamically and autonomously to changes in the physical and social environment. Such a system will need to include the ability to self-organise and self-optimise its planning and operations – to discover, innovate, simulate, create, predict, apply, learn and continuously gain intelligence- to ensure optimal outcomes.

As mentioned, although projects such as FuturicT project have the potential to kick-start this process, there is only one practical mechanism to ensure the ultimate success of such a gargantuan endeavour- harnessing the intelligence of the Web itself. It must be nurtured and engineered to become self-organising and self-adaptive, in order to reach the goal of managing a sustainable future- essential for us and our planet.