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This Gross Piece of Crap May Be the Key to a New Technological Future

Illustration for article titled This Gross Piece of Crap May Be the Key to a New Technological Future

Look at this piece of disgusting crap. It looks like something you could find in a clogged bathroom sink drain after not cleaning it for a decade. But as gross as it looks, it may be the key to our technological future.

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It's a living sponge. Or something like that. But it's alive. Kind of. This deformed ball is a mass of artificial cells, created from genetically engineered marine sponges. The synthetic cells have a plastic nucleus coated by a bubble of oil that acts as a cell membrane. Inside the cell there's a piece of DNA made from a random combination of silica-forming proteins that has been randomly mutated.

Depending on the kind of original material used, the artificial cells produce different substances. Some create new structures of silicon dioxide, which could be used in future chips. Some other balls form new types of fiberglass and even magnetic nanoparticles.

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Scientists are using genetics because they want to use the rules of evolution to obtain completely new materials that would be perfect for current and future, unknown technologies. According to scientists at the University of California, Santa Barbara, "this approach will begin to allow the same DNA-based evolutionary processes that have created seashells and skeletons to be harnessed to advance human technologies."

That could be huge, as evolution is a powerful force that can push materials into places that we can't even imagine. [Ars Technica]

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DISCUSSION

I mentioned this downthread, but if you read the full text of the article (PNAS 6/7/2012, DOI 10.1073, open access), it's clear that they have not actually created a sponge or anything resembling the photo. They used genes from marine sponges to create silica and titanium compounds, which they grew on plastic beads in the laboratory. It's entirely in vitro; the little synthetic cells are floating in a beaker, they're not part of some larger organism.

If you follow the wikicommons citation on the Ars Technica article, it's clear that the photo is of a species of sponge that naturally produces those silicate spikes. It is not composed of artificial cells, nor is it genetically engineered- just an interesting critter with some interesting genes, which someone photographed all the way back in 1982. The summary here is a bit misleading.