Biotech Needs Its Hydrogen Atom

The hydrogen atom revolutionized physics. 

Throughout the 20th century, physicists used this atom to develop a quantum theory of matter. By using the same atom from one experiment to the next, physicists were able to compare results and reconcile their findings. Hydrogen is the foundation on which physics built its cathedral.

Biotechnology needs its own hydrogen atom.

A zoologist and protein engineer both call themselves biologists, but otherwise share little in common. Biology is broad and multi-faceted. Even in narrowly-focused fields—such as for Alzheimer’s or cell death—disagreements abound. Every scientist pursues their own ideas using slightly different methods and cell strains. Papers are promptly locked behind paywalls and negative findings are rarely published at all.

This is not a good way to build scientific cathedrals. Biotechnology promises to do so much for our world, and yet I fear I’ll never see many of its goods in my lifetime, simply because of the scattershot way in which we work. Biotechnology can learn from physics and build its own cathedral.

Imagine a biological singularity, of sorts, in which one could design any molecule, or any cell, for any purpose. If biotechnology transcended from an era of trial-and-error and billion-dollar development timelines, and instead could be used to design safe solutions to problems at will, most diseases would have a cure. Materials would be grown from layers of engineered cells and plants would fix their own nitrogen. Abundance.

If this sounds like overzealous optimism, well, that’s because it is. But these achievements are not impossible. Cells are made from molecules, which are made from atoms, which can be understood. Nothing in this quest flies against the laws of physics. This century should be devoted to the mapping, quantification, and deep understanding of how life works, such that we can begin to reliably design living organisms to do more good in the world. We’re already seeing this with protein design; in the future, we may see it with cell design. 

But first, biotechnology will need to find its own hydrogen atom, a foundation on which to build tools and knowledge that can later be applied more broadly. I’d like to propose Mycoplasma genitalium, an organism with perhaps the smallest genome of any free-living thing. We’ve already made great progress in understanding this “simple” cell, but there is more to be done. 

In 2006, the J. Craig Venter Institute reported that only 382 genes in M. genitalium are essential. A whole-cell model of this organism’s life cycle followed in 2012. But even now, dozens of genes in M. genitalium have unknown functions. We don’t fully understand how its molecules interact to carry out behaviors, and most of its proteins have unknown structures. There are also mysteries in the ways that these cells communicate and draw resources from their environment.

We should build an institute that is wholly devoted to understanding a single type of cell, be it M. genitalium or another, at a depth that is complete enough such that its entire life and all its functions can be simulated on a computer. Achieving that simulation would require first that we build technologies to study life at high spatial and temporal resolutions, for one cell or populations of interacting cells, and then feed the collected data into predictive models that can later be applied more broadly. This institute would ideally operate as a non-profit and make all of these tools and models open-source.

In this way, a single cell could provide a foundation for biotechnology’s future.

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