Last month, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology inaugurated its first new major in 29 years (PDF). The field of study? Biological Engineering.
Biological Engineering is not the same as what is commonly called "biotechnology" or "genetic engineering." It is the application of mathematically-driven engineering principles to the construction of novel genetic structures; in contrast, genetic engineering is often a trial-and-error process, with numerous opportunities for and examples of unanticipated results. Many of the reasonable concerns about GMO foods and animals come from this hit or miss aspect of biotech. Biological Engineers have a more systematic approach, and use an increasingly deep understanding of how DNA works to then make microorganisms perform narrowly specified tasks.
(Note: as of this afternoon, the MIT Biological Engineering website appears to be down.)
Biological engineers have no plans to simply replace existing technology. They want to come up with new uses that people might never have thought of before."The point of using biological [engineering] to do information processing isn't in order to replace your laptop computer," says Endy. "Instead, we can use biology-based computing to implement modest amounts of memory and logic in places where we don't have any - like the cells in your liver."
We talked about Biological Engineering last May, referring to it by its other common name, Synthetic Biology; the Scientific American article Alex linked to remains online, and is still a good introduction to how this all works.
Some of you will read that Guardian piece and cringe; others will read it and get fired up with enthusiasm. In a way, both reactions are appropriate. Standardized engineering components ("Biobricks") and cheap base pair synthesis will make garage bioengineering easy, and that will inevitably lead to mistakes, accidents and opportunities for malicious mischief. But the understanding necessary to create these tools will make the unanticipated system interactions feared by knowledgeable opponents of biotech vanishingly rare, and the reliance on standardized parts will make recognition and response to accident or malice much more straightforward. This will further enable the kind of open source-style environment I wrote about in Open the Future.
As long as biological engineers approach their work with an appreciation for system effects, the standardized components and rigorous design methodology could actually make broader use of biotechnology a safer prospect. I would encourage MIT to make certain that the required coursework for the major includes education in ecosystems, as well as in ethics. As biological engineering is likely to replace current models of biotechnology, it's important that we understand its methods and goals -- and it's just as important for the biological engineers to understand the bigger world in which they'll work.