Distributed Biological Manufacturing

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Put forward by Rob Carlson in http://www.synthesis.cc/Biol_Tech_2050.pdf

By 2050, argues Carlson, we will have renewable manufacturing which means that biology will be used to produce many of the physical things we use today. And because of the declining cost of manufacuring and miniaturization, such production will be localized.

Summary of the argument: "The concept is pretty straightforward: Biology is all around us, is often more resource and energy efficient than human industrial processes, and is becoming the subject of an engineering discipline. Because the tools and skills are ubiquitous, biological engineering will be practiced everywhere. There will always be applications where biology isn't the right technology, but where organisms or enzyme systems in tubes can be engineered to produce materials, drugs, and fuels, they will be."


From Rob Carlson's Biology in 2050:

"Increased resource efficiency and biomaterials are only the first steps in a revolution in manufacturing. Beyond using biology as a model for the structure and function of industrial production, the year 2050 will see humans utilizing biology as the means of production itself.

Whereas most manufacturing today is highly centralized and materials are transported considerable distances throughout the assembly process, in the year 2050 human industry will use distributed and renewable manufacturing based upon biology. Renewable manufacturing means that biology will be used to produce many of the physical things we use every day. In early implementation, the organism of choice will likely be yeast or a bacterium. The physical infrastructure for this type of manufacturing is inherently flexible: it is essentially the vats, pumps, and fluid handling capacity found in any brewery. Production runs for different products would merely involve seeding a vat with a yeast strain containing the appropriate genetic instructions and then providing raw materials. To be sure, there will always be applications and environments where biological fabrication is not the best option, and it is not clear how complex the fabrication task can be, but biology is capable of fabrication feats not emulatable by any current or envisioned human technology. In some ways, this scheme sounds a bit like Eric Drexler’s nanotechnological assemblers[7], except that we already have functional nanotechnology – it’s called biology.

The transformation to an economy based on biological manufacturing will occur as technical manipulations become easier with practice and through a proliferation of workers with the appropriate skills. Biological engineering will proceed from profession, to vocation, to avocation, because the availability of inexpensive, quality DNA sequencing and synthesis equipment will allow participation by anyone who wants to learn the details. In 2050, following the fine tradition of hacking automobiles and computers, garage biology hacking will be well underway.

As the “coding” infrastructure for understanding, troubleshooting, and, ultimately, designing biology develops, DNA sequencers and synthesizers will become less expensive, faster, and ever simpler to use. These critical technologies will first move from academic labs and large biotechnology companies to small businesses, and eventually to the home garage and kitchen. Many standard laboratory techniques that once required a doctorate’s worth of knowledge and experience to execute correctly are now used by undergraduates in a research setting with kits containing color-coded bottles of reagents. The recipes are easy to follow. This change in technology represents a democratization of sorts, and it illustrates the likely changes in labor structure that will accompany the blossoming of biological technology.

The course of labor in biological technology can be charted by looking at the experience of the computer and internet industries. Many start-up companies in Silicon Valley have become contract engineering efforts, funded by venture capital, where workers sign on with the expectation that the company will be sold within a few years, whereupon they will find a new assignment. The leading edge of the biological technology revolution could soon look the same. However, unlike today’s integrated circuits, where manufacturing infrastructure costs have now reached upwards of 1 billion dollars per facility, the infrastructure costs for renewable biological manufacturing will continue to decline. Life, and all the evolutionarily developed technology it utilizes, operates at essentially room temperature, fueled by sugars. Renewable, biological manufacturing will take place anywhere someone wants to set up a vat or plant a seed.

Distributed biological manufacturing will be all the more flexible because the commodity in biotechnology is today becoming information rather than things. While it is still often necessary to exchange samples through the mail, the genomics industry has already begun to derive income from selling solely information about gene expression. In a few decades it will be the genomic sequence that is sent between labs, there to be re-synthesized and expressed as needed. It is already possible to synthesize sufficient DNA to build a bacterial genome from scratch in a few weeks. Over the coming decades that time will be reduced to days, and then to hours.

When molecular biologists figure out the kernel of biology, innovation by humans will consist of tweaking the parts to provide new services. Because of the sheer amount of information, it is unlikely that a single corporate entity could maintain a monopoly on the kernel. Eventually, as design tasks increase in number and sophistication, corporations will have to share techniques and this information will inevitably spread widely, reaching all levels of technical ability – the currency of the day will be innovation and design. As with every other technology developed by humans, biological technology will be broadly disseminated.

As open-source biological manufacturing spreads, it will be adopted quickly in less developed economies to bypass the first world’s investment in industrial infrastructure. Given the already stressed state of natural resources throughout much of the developing world, it will not be possible for many of those countries to attain first-world standards of living with industrial infrastructure as wasteful as that of the United States. The developing world simply cannot afford industrial and energy inefficiency. A short cut is to follow the example of the growing wireless-only communications infrastructure in Africa and skip building systems to transport power and goods. It is already clear that distributed power generation will soon become more efficient than centralized systems. Distributed manufacturing based upon local resources will save transportation costs, provide for simpler customization, require less infrastructure investment, and as a result will likely cost less than centralized manufacturing." (http://www.synthesis.cc/World_In_2050.html)


Example of biofuel developments reviewed here at http://synthesis.typepad.com/synthesis/2007/06/the_need_for_fu.html


Dangers associated with these trends

"Distributed biological manufacturing is the future of the global economy. With design and fabrication power spread throughout the world to the extent suggested here, it is necessary to consider possible dangers. The simple answer is that those dangers are real and considerable. This technology enables the creation of new organisms potentially pathogenic to humans, or to animals and plants upon which we rely. It is already clear that the social and biological consequences of extending human life span and human germline engineering will consume considerable public debate time over the next few decades. Moreover, the underlying infrastructure and methods are already so widespread that no one country will be able to manipulate the development of biological technology by controlling the research within its borders. But fear of potential hazards should be met with increased research and education rather than closing the door on the profound positive impacts distributed biological technology will have on human health, human impacts on the environment, and on increasing standards of living around the world. Technology based on intentional, open-source biology is on its way, whether we like it or not, and the opportunity it represents will just begin to emerge in the next fifty years." (http://www.synthesis.cc/World_In_2050.html)

More Information

  1. Other trends in Desktop Manufacturing
  2. Localization