Could (and Should) We Become Biological Programmers?
This short article reminds me that adopting a programmatic approach to biology can be an inconvenience.
Before diving headfirst into synthetic biology and bioengineering in the last months, I was already attracted to computer science and engineering. I thought I’d be able to make the most out of my knowledge of computer programming in biological computing, which I ultimately chose to focus on.
While this basic knowledge of computer programming has at times proven useful, I also wonder to what extent it has prevented me from understanding the fundamental complexities of biology and the stark uniqueness of nature.
I recently realized that I was viewing biological problems as computer problems, that I thought about programming biology like programming computers.
APPROACHING BIOLOGICAL PROBLEMS AS A COMPUTER PROGRAMMER
It’s easy to draw the parallels between genetic and computer code. Instead of binary code, genes and genomes are essentially encoded in quaternary, with Cs (for cytosine), Gs (guanine), As (adenine), and Ts (thymine) for 0s and 1s. Organisms are already biological machines (or biocomputers), capable of performing computational calculations and executing complex programs with this quaternary code.
As the cost of sequencing and synthesizing the code of life decreases, our ability to replicate their programs and engineer new ones improves.
WHAT ARE THE CONSEQUENCES?
Since the early 2000s, biologists have adopted the mindset of engineers, designed complex genetic circuits, and created new forms of life. The risks of computer technology may become the risks of synthetic biology and biological systems can cause much greater damage.
Because of the low cost of getting something wrong and the ease at which computer programmers can test their code again, maybe genetic programming shouldn’t be analogous to computer programming. Computer code can repeatedly be tested until properly functional and supplanted by newer versions when necessary, whereas biological programs can’t easily be updated once they’re released to the wild.
On the other hand, programming biology seems to be the path many researchers and scientists are taking to treat diseases, solve biological problems, and improve industrial products.
What are the possible social issues and ethical concerns of playing God?
As I research biological computing from the comfort of my own room, I often feel disconnected from the ramifications of this field. Understanding the consequences of programming biology doesn’t discourage me from learning and working, but rather urges me to remain informed on public policy, social issues, and ethical concerns.