The promise of living biological machines, as well as industrial scale 3D printing, seemed just beyond our reach in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries. Now, they are reality – and ‘manufacturing’ will never be the same. 3D printing is now completely mainstream, with millions of printers humming away all over the world, from dinky US$ 25 home models to vast industrial printers turning out large components and whole products – and even printing bio products like meat.
But the real breakthrough has been in synthetic biology; the production of ‘living machines’ made from biological parts, that are doing everything from producing energy from waste, to converting pollution into clear air, to manufacturing low-cost foodstuffs and drugs.
The breakthrough came when scientists adopted what they light-heartedly called an “Ikea approach” – building libraries of high-quality biological ‘parts’ (in reality DNA sequences) that other scientists could speedily stick together to produce a seemingly endless array of living machines… just like assembling furniture from a flat-pack.
“The impact on human life will be revolutionary,” said biotechnologist Professor Audrey Marshall of Tokyo University. “This will reinvent healthcare, chemistry, agriculture, drug manufacture and materials science, just for a start. And we can now tackle so many environmental problems in a natural way, because what we are doing is replicating nature.”
One of the first living machines to emerge from the lab is a synthetic bacteria colony that gobbles up sewage and produces electric power directly – a kind of biological fuel cell. Next on the list is a synthetic leaf, which absorbs sunlight and carbon dioxide to excrete hydrogen and oxygen, providing fuel while simultaneously purifying the air.
The age of abundance is about to begin!