The Meccano of life

In Martyn Amos’s Genesis Machines, Steven Poole discovers how to turn some DNA into 50 billion smiley faces.

From The Guardian:

Screenhunter_05_jan_10_1614If you thought molecular biology was an earnest business, look here: a scientist has coaxed strands of DNA into forming countless tiny smiley faces, a hundred times smaller than a red blood cell. Haunting! Reproduced photographically in this book is the smallest smile ever made, looking almost as though it belongs to a benign alien intelligence. Humans love to read faces into clouds or rock formations on Mars; now they can imprint their features in the submicroscopic netherworld. The researcher’s boss declared: “In a typical reaction, he can make about 50 billion smiley faces. I think this is the most concentrated happiness ever created.” The optimism of the rave generation lives on.

Amos’s fascinating book shows how such miniature manipulation is a step on the road to “truly programmable matter”. Researchers dream of a microscopic “doctor” robot that travels around in your bloodstream and dispenses drugs at the first sign of illness. But it will not be a submarine shrunk by a miniaturising ray, as in Fantastic Voyage; it won’t be electronic at all. Why reinvent the wheel? Nature’s “machines” already contain the components we need. “Science-fiction authors tell stories of ‘microbots’ – incredibly tiny devices that can roam around under their own power, sensing their environment, talking to one another and destroying intruders,” Amos notes. “Such devices already exist, but we know them better as bacteria.”

More here.