Life, but not as we know it: Welcome to a future where man-made organisms build us cities on alien planets

Rob Waugh
Synthetic biology can open new worlds

Mankind’s first 'colonists' on other planets might not be humans at all - but instead, modified microscopic life-forms which would glue together concrete buildings before our first manned ships touched down.

The idea sounds like science fiction - and suspiciously like Star Trek’s 'terraforming' - but NASA is already experimenting with 'synthetic biology' to achieve it - tailor-making an organism to help us make concrete from sand.

"NASA is investigating a synthetic version of bacteria that secrete calcite. If you put them in sand, they form bricks," says Andrew Rutherford, an editor at science journal 'Nature' and author of new book 'Creation'.

"NASA is investigating a synthetic version of these bacteria - which could form bricks. One of the biggest costs in space exploration is getting materials off Earth. With this, if you take a flask of bacteria, you’ve got all your building material. The research is some way off, but NASA is taking a very serious line in synthetic biology."

Rutherford’s book looks at the emerging science of 'synthetic life' - lifeforms modified in the lab using genetic engineering, tailor-made to our needs.

The research has provoked fears of bioterrorism, or man-made plagues - but Rutherford insists the benefits far outweigh the risks.

"Genetic modification is an engineering discipline," says Rutherford. "It has the potential to be the biggest industrial revolution in history - changing food production, the environment, drug production.

"We have been designed in a blind process that has lasted four billion years - with each gene tested to destruction, either through death or extinction. A gene is basically a tool."

The field of genetic modification is controversial - although Rutherford insists the risks are overstated.

Professor Julian Savulescu, an Oxford University ethicist, said in 2010 that research into synthetic life forms was 'creaking open the most profound door in humanity's history, potentially peeking into its destiny. This could be used in the future to make the most powerful bioweapons imaginable. The challenge is to eat the fruit without the worm.'

"There have been reports that it’s easy for DIY labs to recreate smallpox," says Rutherford. "But it’s years, if not decades away. The benefits of this field far outweigh its potential threat. It’s not inherently dangerous. Any technology can cause harm - and this tends to lead to scare stories. Look what happened with the Y2K computer glitch."

Rutherford says that the benefits of such research are already being felt.

"A synthetic yeast cell has been designed which reduces the effect of the most effective malaria treatment tenfold," says Rutherford. "In the past, it’s depended on a slow growing crop, which has been subject to terrible boom and bust. But this synthetic yeast cell can cut those costs. To me, it’s a no-brainer thing to do."

'Creation' will be published in hardback and on Kindle from April 4. You can pre-order it right here.