As tools for engineering life’s building blocks have proliferated in recent years, our definition of human life has become more expansive. For example,we are learning that the vast ecosystems of microbes inside our bodies are as integral to our health as our own tissues, affecting everything from our immune systems to our brain chemistry. Meanwhile, the field of biology itself keeps expanding—see, for example, synthetic biology, the new subfield that uses the combined insights of molecular biology, engineering, and chemistry to construct biological parts and processes. The synthetic biologist Christina Agapakis, a postdoctoral researcher at UCLA, works at the intersection of these developments. She is also part of a cohort of scientists rethinking the role of biology in our culture.
Alexis Madrigal: People have big expectations for biology in the 21st century. Many say that biotech will be as big as information technology was in recent decades. Is that true?
Christina Agapakis: People want synthetic biology and biotechnology to be the next industrial revolution. Looking back, people have tended over time to imagine bodies functioning in ways that were analogous to the dominant technological paradigm of their day, whether that was steam engines or computers. I hope that soon biology will be the technology we judge things by. Maybe we’re going to see industry and computational stuff start to look more like biology, rather than biology looking more like industry and computation.