Smart Thoughts

About Designing the Future

Our Most Breathtaking Transformations: Life’s ‘Endless Forms Most Beautiful’

Written by: George Poste

The human future as a design space – what does that mean to you?

All human inventiveness, beneficent or maleficent, purposeful or serendipitous, generates new design space.  The collective legacy of the innovations that forged the agrarian, industrial and digital revolutions, has been to expand the design canvas for human ingenuity – fueled by diverse artistic, social, mercantile, military and political objectives.

Charles Darwin in his magisterial synthesis On the Origin of Species referred to living organisms as “endless forms most beautiful.”  The contemporary interpretation of biological systems as complex networks of DNA-encoded digital information dramatically expands the concept of biological design beyond Darwin’s “red in tooth and claw” cycles of survival and extinction.  A new era of design is at hand.  These include novel and unique biological functions and life forms for which there are no evolutionary precedents.  The contemporary interpretation of Darwin’s view of biological diversity now mutates to “endless forms birthed in silico.”  Making this a reality is already underway in “synthetic” biology – beyond the work of nature.  We have become the first species to take control of our own evolution.  Not in some distant science-fiction future, but right now, on our watch.

Designing entirely synthetic biosystems became feasible with the ability to move beyond reading and writing genomes (biotechnology) to new capabilities in editing DNA in living organisms (synthetic biology).  Gene editing offers seemingly limitless opportunities to confer unique functional properties on existing organisms, to design hybrid biological systems containing combinations of natural and synthetic genes and, most ambitiously, to build completely synthetic organisms.  The well-publicized CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing tool is but the first technology in the rapid race by academia and industry to capture the projected massive commercial markets for synthetic genes.  Opportunities are near limitless for genome modification across the entire phylogenetic spectrum, from microorganisms to man. 

Current activities in synthetic biology are still focused largely on engineering novel functions in relatively simple organisms such as bacteria.   However, the design space offered by synthetic biology portends a future in which these capabilities will expand rapidly to modify ever more complex life forms, including humans.  The only uncertainty is the time by which the next generation of scalable, automated DNA-based “design-build-test” methods evolve.  These will allow routine alternation of the genetic endowment of any species, including humans.

In this headlong pursuit of genetic modification, the prospect of eugenic enhancement of humans will probably only be delayed, at best.  Consider the furor evoked by the recent Chinese claim of the birth of twin girls whose genomes were edited as early stage embryos to confer resistance to HIV.   It gives little reassurance that ethical objections or policy demands for international prohibition of genetic enhancement will be effective in constraining human design.  Differences in international cultural norms, the lure of new commercial opportunities, and perceived social advantages from eugenic performance, abound.  The enhancement of military personnel and more futuristic proposals for genetic engineering of humans to protect against radiation in long duration space travel such as a Mars mission suggest themselves. As does the stratification of humans into augmented (non-heritable genetic change), enhanced (heritable change) and “originals” (“wild-type,” in conventional genetic nomenclature). Any advanced technology seen as offering advantage to individuals, corporations or governments quickly transcends opposition to become routine. Hubris, arrogance and avarice have obstinate persistence in the history of human ideas, invention and motivation.

Nonetheless, our design space has become life itself.  Our grand challenge now resides in the quest to understand how information encoded in DNA and other biological molecules is translated into the extravagant diversity of form and function in the biosphere.  How is this complexity integrated across vast scale – individual cells to organs to intact organisms to global ecosystems?


About George Poste

George is Chief Scientist of the Complex Adaptive Systems Initiative (CASI), Regents’ Professor, and Del E. Webb Chair in Health Innovation at Arizona State University. This program links expertise across the university in research on synthetic biology, ubiquitous sensing and healthcare informatics for personalized medicine. He founded the Biodesign Institute at ASU, which develops solutions inspired from natural systems and translates those solutions into commercially viable products and clinical practices. In creating this Institute from 2003 to 2009, Dr. Poste designed and built 400,000 square feet of new facilities, achieved cumulative research funding of $300 million and recruited over 60 faculty, including three members of the National Academies of Science and Engineering.  Today, Biodesign has more than a dozen different research centers, labs and 200 active research projects and its 132 tenured research faculty includes a Nobel Prize winner.