How the Convergence of Biology and Engineering Will Build the Next Technology Revolution
The Age of Living Machines – A century ago, discoveries in physics came together with engineering to produce an array of astonishing new technologies: radios, telephones, televisions, aircraft, radar, nuclear power, computers, the Internet, and a host of still-evolving digital tools. These technologies so radically reshaped our world that we can no longer conceive of life without them.
Today, the world’s population is projected to rise to well over 9.5 billion by 2050, and we are currently faced with the consequences of producing the energy that fuels, heats, and cools us. With temperatures and sea levels rising, and large portions of the globe plagued with drought, famine, and drug-resistant diseases, we need new technologies to tackle these problems.
But we are on the cusp of a new convergence, argues world-renowned neuroscientist Susan Hockfield, with discoveries in biology coming together with engineering to produce another array of almost inconceivable technologies—next-generation products that have the potential to be every bit as paradigm shifting as the twentieth century’s digital wonders.
The Age of Living Machines describes some of the most exciting new developments and the scientists and engineers who helped create them. Virus-built batteries. Protein-based water filters. Cancer-detecting nanoparticles. Mind-reading bionic limbs. Computer-engineered crops. Together they highlight the promise of the technology revolution of the twenty-first century to overcome some of the greatest humanitarian, medical, and environmental challenges of our time
3Q: Susan Hockfield on a new age of living machines
Q. What are living machines?
A: Thanks to the emergence and expansion of the fields of molecular biology and genetics, we are amassing an ever-growing understanding of nature’s genius — the exquisitely adapted molecular and genetic machinery cells use to accomplish a multitude of purposes. I believe we are on the brink of a convergence revolution, where engineers and physical scientists are recognizing how we can use this biological “parts list” to adapt these natural machines to our own uses.
We can already see this revolution at work. In the late 1980s, Peter Agre, a physician-scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Medical Center, found an unknown protein that contaminated his every attempt to isolate the Rh protein from red blood cells. Intrigued by this mysterious interloper, he persevered until he revealed its function and structure. The protein, which he named “aquaporin,” turned out to be an essential piece of the cell’s apparatus for maintaining the right balance of water inside and outside of the cell. Its structure is superbly adapted to let water molecules — and only water molecules — pass through in large number with remarkable efficiently and speed.
The discovery of aquaporin transformed our understanding of the fundamental biology of cells, and thanks to the insight of Agre’s biophysicist colleagues, it may also transform our ability to purify drinking water at a large scale. With the launch of the company Aquaporin A/S in 2005, engineers, chemists, and biologists are translating this molecular machine into working water purification systems, now in people’s sinks and even, in 2015, in space, recycling drinking water for Danish astronauts.
Q: Why do we need living machines?
A: We are facing an existential crisis. The anticipated global population of more than 9.7 billion by 2050 poses daunting challenges for providing sufficient energy, food, and water, as well as health care, more accurately and at lower cost. These challenges are enormous in scale and complexity, and we will need to take equally enormous leaps in our imagination to meet them successfully.
But I am optimistic. Innovations like those inspired by the structure of aquaporin or the viruses that MIT materials scientist and biological engineer Angela Belcher is adapting to build more powerful, smaller batteries with cleaner, more efficient energy storage, demonstrate just how bold we can be. And yet I think the true promise of living machines lies in what we haven’t imagined yet.
In 1937, MIT President Karl Taylor Compton wrote a delightful essay called “The Electron: Its Intellectual and Social Significance” to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the discovery of the electron. Compton wrote that the electron was “the most versatile tool ever utilized,” having already resulted in seemingly magical technologies, such as radio, long-distance telephone calls, and soundtracks for movies. But Compton also recognized — accurately — that we had not even begun to realize the impact of its discovery.
In the coming decades, the atomic parts list discovered by physicists sparked a first convergence revolution, bringing us radar, television, computers, and the internet, just to start. Neither Compton nor anyone else could fully imagine the breadth of innovations to come or how radically our conception of what is possible would be altered. We can’t predict the transformations that “Convergence 2.0” will bring any more than Compton could predict the internet in 1937. But we can see clearly from the first convergence revolution that if we’re willing to throw open the doors of innovation, world-changing ideas will walk through.
Q: How do we ensure that these doors remain open?
A: The convergence revolution is happening all around us, but its success is not inevitable. For it to succeed at the maximum pace with maximum impact, biologists and engineers, along with clinicians, physicists, computational scientists, and others, need to be able to move across disciplines with shared ambition. This will require us to reorganize our thinking and our funding.
The organization of universities into departments serves us well in a number of ways, but it sometimes leads to disciplinary boundaries that can be quite difficult to cross. Interdisciplinary labs and centers can serve as reaction vessels that catalyze new approaches to research. Models for this abound at MIT. For example, soon after chemical engineer Paula Hammond joined MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, she found a new use for the layer-by-layer fabrication of nanomaterials she pioneered for energy storage devices. With the expertise of physician and molecular biologist Michael Yaffe, Hammond used that same layering method to produce nanoparticles that deliver a one-two punch of different anti-cancer drugs carefully timed to increase their effectiveness.
Our biggest sources of funding likewise constrain cross-disciplinary efforts, with the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the departments of Energy and Defense all investing in research along disciplinary lines. Increased experimentation with cross-disciplinary and cross-agency funding initiatives could help break down those barriers. We have already seen what such funding models can do. The Human Genome Project — which brought together biologists, computer scientists, chemists, and technologists with funding primarily from U.S.- and U.K.-based agencies — did not just give us the first map of the human genome, but paved the way for tools that allow us to study cells and diseases at entirely new scales of depth and breadth.
But ultimately, we need to renew a shared national commitment to developing new ideas. This July, we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing. While some might argue that it offered no real benefit, it produced enormous technological gains. We should recall that the technological feat of putting men on the moon and returning them to Earth was accomplished during a time of profound social disruption. Besides providing a focus for our shared ambitions and hopes, the drive to put astronauts on the moon also led to an amazing acceleration of technology in numerous areas including computing, nanotechnology, transportation, aeronautics, and health care. History shows us we need to be willing to make these great leaps, without necessarily knowing where they will take us. Convergence 2.0, the convergence of biology with engineering and the physical sciences, offers a new model for invention, for collaboration, and for shared ambition to solve some of the most pressing problems of this century.
“Entertaining and prescient….Hockfield demonstrates how nature’s molecular riches may be leveraged to provide potential solutions to some of humanity’s existential challenges.”
– Adrian Woolfson, Science
“Susan Hockfield’s lively and authoritative book brings to life the bio-revolution that is coming and that will dwarf the computer revolution in causing disruption―for better and worse.”
– Ashton B. Carter, former U.S. secretary of defense, director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, and MIT Innovation Fellow
“A highly readable and deeply informative look over the scientific horizon into a future where biology and engineering converge to offer extraordinary means to improve our world.”
– Drew Gilpin Faust, president emerita and Lincoln Professor of History, Harvard University
“Beautifully captures the science and the stories underpinning the convergence of biology and engineering as a transformative twenty-first century enterprise. One of those stories―biologically organized batteries―addresses the clean-energy revolution needed for mitigating climate change, capturing both of Hockfield’s signature initiatives as MIT President.”
– Ernest J. Moniz, former U.S. secretary of energy
“Timely, provocative insights into ways the genomic and bioengineering revolution is likely to transform our world in the next half century as profoundly as computer chips powering the information revolution transformed the past fifty years.”
– Graham Allison, Douglas Dillon Professor of Government, Harvard Kennedy School, and author of Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?
“Life sciences are at the doorstep of meeting the major challenges of our time: energy, food, water, and disease. Hockfield views this future through the eyes of scientists at the interface of engineering and biology in an exciting and enjoyable book.”
– Phillip A. Sharp, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT
“An essential book for our fast-moving times. Hockfield covers an immense range of the emerging technologies that will reshape our lives. At the same time, she offers a crucial synthesis, much needed in an age of fragmentation. The result is a powerful reading experience, combining depth and clarity, and offering a generous supplement of hope.”
– Vartan Gregorian, president of Carnegie Corporation of New York
“Vibrant and accessible….What’s especially exciting about the narrative is that much of the research Hockfield describes occurred as a result of her foresight and tenacity; her vision at MIT was to bridge disciplines in a manner similar to the pioneering work that was conducted at Bell Labs in the mid-20th century….In these uncertain times, Hockfield instills hope for an enriched and peaceful tomorrow. A thrilling, insightful, and highly readable work of popular science.”
– Kirkus (starred review)
“Data-rich yet accessibly written….Hockfield does a superb job of sharing the excitement and challenges associated with scientific investigation, while making the prospect of an impending ‘era of unprecedented innovation and prosperity’ seem that much more plausible.- Publishers Weekly
“Efficiently weaves in previous scientific discoveries and breakthroughs, current research, the mechanics behind each project, and engaging profiles of the individuals―engineers, physicians, botanists, inventors, and entrepreneurs―who are leading the way….A refreshing celebration of exciting things to come.”
About the Author
Susan Hockfield, Ph.D., president emerita and professor of neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was the first woman and first life scientist to lead MIT. She is a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.