Monday, August 20, 2007

Biotechnology is SO 19___

Recently the AC questioned the novelty of human genome sequencing (albeit from fossilized specimens), the work of one of Discover magazine's picks for last year's scientist of the year. He has inspired me to also question the novelty of their other two picks, just for old time's sake:

1. Using microorganisms to produce fossil fuel alternatives is SO 1934 (and probably even older).
William J. Hale of Dow Chemicals discussed this idea as a part of his broader plan for increasing the scope of agricultural manufacturing in his 1934 classic The Farm Chemurgic. I'm sure the notion had been floating around before, as it was well-known by this time that ethanol is a natural product of fermentation. But hey, who wants to burn it when you can get hammered and take off on a gasoline-guzzling joyride instead. Of course the synthetic biology approach in the context of this problem is still sexy - but doesn't necessarily change the economics of the approach, unless it increases efficiency or allows new types of starting materials to be converted.

2. The Man-Machine Interface is SO 1948.
Craig Taylor was one of the founders of one of the world's first biotechnology programs at UCLA, and kick-started the field of man-machine interfaces (and apparently liked to participate in his own experiments). Military and aeronautical engineers took a particular interest in the nascent field. I think this picture of him from Life magazine really shows that the technology of the day just cannot be beat (I that an egg he's frying with the power of his brain??):(Reproduced from R. Bud, The Uses of Life: A History of Biotechnology, 1993.)

As always, find these stories and more in The Uses of Life: A History of Biotechnology, .by Robert Bud (1993).