Automated genetic tinkering is just the start – this machine could be used to rewrite the language of life and create new species of humans
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IT IS a strange combination of clumsiness and beauty. Sitting on a cheap-looking worktop is a motley ensemble of flasks, trays and tubes squeezed onto a home-made frame. Arrays of empty pipette tips wait expectantly. Bunches of black and grey wires adorn its corners. On the top, robotic arms slide purposefully back and forth along metal tracks, dropping liquids from one compartment to another in an intricately choreographed dance. Inside, bacteria are shunted through slim plastic tubes, and alternately coddled, chilled and electrocuted. The whole assembly is about a metre and a half across, and controlled by an ordinary computer.
Say hello to the evolution machine. It can achieve in days what takes genetic engineers years. So far it is just a prototype, but if its proponents are to be believed, future versions could revolutionise biology, allowing us to evolve new organisms or rewrite whole genomes with ease. It might even transform humanity itself.
These days everything from your food and clothes to the medicines you take may well come from genetically modified plants or bacteria. The first generation of engineered organisms has been a huge hit with farmers and manufacturers – if not consumers. And this is just the start. So far organisms have only been changed in relatively crude and simple ways, often involving just one or two genes. To achieve their grander ambitions, such as creating algae capable of churning out fuel for cars, genetic engineers are now trying to make far more sweeping changes.