Evolution Machine Compresses Eons Into Days

The evolution machine uses multiplex automated genome engineering (MAGE) to radically accelerate the process of evolving novel microbes to solve human problems. Rather than waiting eons for nature to come up with useful organisms, like cyanobacteria that can extract energy from light directly using photosynthesis, evolution machines can put the evolution pedal to the metal and produce new organisms in days.

(The Evolution Machine)

Here's how the process, which is the result of work done by grad student Harris Wang and Harvard genetics professor George Church among others, works to push evolution to its limits.

The basic idea is hardly original; various forms of directed evolution are already used to design things as diverse as proteins and boats. Church's group, however, has developed a machine for "evolving" entire organisms - and it works at an unprecedented scale and speed. The system has the potential to add, change or switch off thousands of genes at a time - Church calls this "multiplexing" - and it can generate billions of new strains in days.

Of course, there are already plenty of ways to generate mutations in cells, from zapping them with radiation to exposing them to dangerous chemicals. What's different about Church's machine is that it can target the genes that affect a particular characteristic and alter them in specific ways. That greatly increases the odds of success. Effectively, rather than spending years introducing one set of specific changes, bioengineers can try out thousands of combinations at once.

Church is also adapting MAGE for use with human stem cell lines. The intent is to create human cell lines with slightly different genomes in order to test ideas about which mutations cause disease.

"Sequencing is now a million times cheaper, and there are a million times as many hypotheses being generated," he says. "We'd like to develop the resources so that people can quickly test hypotheses about the human genome by synthesising new versions."

As the technology improves and becomes routine, says Church, it could also be used to alter the cells used for cell-based therapies. Tissue-engineered livers grown from stem cells, say, could have their genetic code altered so that they would be immune to liver-destroying viruses such as hepatitis C.

"Everybody getting stem cell therapies will be given a choice of doing ordinary stem cell therapy - either with their cells or donor cells - or doing stem cells that are resistant to viruses," he says.

SF Golden Age great Edmond Hamilton wrote about this idea in his 1931 short story The Man Who Evolved. In the story, Dr. John Pollard has an idea for a machine that will increase the speed of human evolution by millions of times.

A big cube-like structure of transparent metal surmounted by a huge metal cylinder resembling a monster vacuum tube, took up the room's center, and he showed us in an adjoining stone-floored room the dynamos and motors of his private power plant...

"...it is the cosmic rays, beating upon every living organism on earth, that cause the profound changes in the structure of those organisms which we call mutations...

"I have been able in the last months to do something no physicist has been able to do, to concentrate the cosmic rays and yet remove from them their harmful properties. You saw the cylinder over the metal cube in my laboratory? That cylinder literally gathers in from an immense distance the cosmic rays that strike this part of earth, and reflects them down inside the cube.

"Now suppose those concentrated cosmic rays, millions of times stronger than the ordinary cosmic rays that strike one spot on earth, fell upon a man standing inside the cube? What will be the result? ...He will be changed millions of times faster than ordinarily, will go forward in hours or minutes through the evolutionary mutations that all mankind will go forward through in eons to come!"
(Read more about Hamilton's evolution machine)

Read more about the work of Church's group in New Scientist; thanks to Winchell Chung (aka, @nyrath) for the story and the sf tip.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 7/3/2011)

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