Artificial life

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Christine wants to avoid an irrational aversion to Drexlerian nanotechnology stemming from concerns about green goo, similar to the irrational aversion to nanotech brought about by the fear of free-floating grey goo. However, there is great warrant for fear in this case. Today, designing and manufacturing an artificial life form has already been done at least once - for an artificial virus. We have created life. I predict we will create artificial bacteria by 2010, not just by writing their genomes, but actually by building them from scratch. It will cost millions and maybe a dozen Ph.Ds, but the difficulty threshold will drop like a stone.

From 'accelerating the future' (blog):

By 2020, creating cybernetic microorganisms capable of entirely displacing their biological equivalents will become feasible in a university lab, with minimal funding. Then the potential problems will begin. Artificial viruses, bacteria, photoplankton, algae, even krill or insects could quickly be produced in great numbers before the end of the second decade of this century, which would then go on to self-replicate beyond our control. This scenario is not only conceivable, but probable - it only takes one successful self-replicator to create a major hassle. If it’s a self-replicator that throws a wrench into human biology in particular, it could kill every person on earth in the time it takes to spread globally.
Because artificial organisms will have the potential for superior performance, they could spread much faster than natural species, while being capable of surviving in a much wider range of niches. Based on the principles of evolvable hardware, we can produce artificial organisms that evolve thousands or millions of times faster than their natural counterparts. Imagine an artificial chloroplast that jumps from cell to cell, plant to plant, continent to continent, rendering their hosts incapable of photosynthesis.


The concerns about possible danger of an artificial organism are very real, but they apply equally to artificially adapted organisms. These are far more likely in the short term. Naturally evolved parasites, viruses, bacteria develop limitations that allow them to spread. We probably already know enough in principle how to knock out those mechanisms and create an artificial variant that can spread, and that then destroys its host and itself. Because such an evolution is 'artificial' there is no selection for self limitation.

In more detail, very few illnesses are both highly contagious and have severe symptoms. However there are illnesses in both classes. Genetic recombination can attach a deadly payload, such as an oncogene, to a highly contagious carrier, with predictable results.

I don't see that the ability to create an organism completely from scratch adds anything really new to the mix. 2010 is in any case way too soon for a complete artificial bacterium in my view. We will have a cure for cancer before we have that - which makes the whole problem moot. Rather than a jumping chloroplast, in the near future far more likely is a jumping transposable element (a much shorter piece of DNA) that has undesirable properties and that inserts into the chloroplast. Our lack of knowledge about biological systems could lead us to make really stupendous blunders in this area. For example a possibly desirable trade off for food-crop plants is to make them crop more heavily but be sterile. A transposable element carrying these properties into the wild could be catastrophic. Fortunately the chances are good that because of genetic diversity there would be variants in the wild resistant to the change. Also the chances are good that less dangerous versions of the transposable element would emerge, and would compete with the original artificial one. The ecosystem would recover. The technology we need to worry about is technology that makes transposable DNA more stable. --JC 22:14, 22 October 2006 (UTC)

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