The Future of Bioengineering and the Ability to Build With Living Cells

SAUL BROMBERGER AND SANDRA HOOVER FOR STANFORD ENGINEERING

The implications are enormous.

Though still youthful, Drew Endy is one of the founding fathers of the newest branch of engineering—bioengineering. Fifteen years ago he drew up the standard “parts list” for biological circuitry, the first real attempt to make a toolkit that would allow bio-engineers to build, from the bottom up, living cells, in the same way that electrical engineers build useful gadgets from  transistors, resistors, capacitors and the like. “Then he helped found and grow the international genetically engineered machine competition. iGem is now international and the competition has trained about 60,000 in the basics of bioengineering. “Think of me as a doula,” he says.

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That’s Endy being exceedingly modest, because Endy also led the team that invented the one of the key parts on the bio-engineering part list: the “transcriptor,” which is the biological equivalent of the transistor.  Computers are made of transistors, meaning that with the advent of Endy’s “transcriptor” it is now possible to build a full computer out of living matter—“built on the tooling that God implemented,” as Endy puts it.  

Now in his fifties, Endy is a tenured professor in Stanford’s Bioengineering department, and busy laying the foundations for a future where the ability to engineer life is as common as the ability to write computer code. The implications are enormous, says Endy, “it means that ten billion people could flourish on this planet without trashing it.”