MIT is driving research to design proteins with specific structural objectives. Similar to those existing in nature but with new properties, such as stiffness and elasticity. The possibilities are so vast, its scope in these early phases is unclear. But it could meet our most pressing design needs. Replacing materials made from petroleum or ceramics, for example, and producing them with a much smaller carbon footprint. Might this be a driver in weaning us off the earth’s natural resources? Food scarcity, waste and malnutrition could be reduced too, with biologically-inspired food coatings to keep produce fresh for longer. Further enhanced by emerging innovations in biotechnologies, we could be headed for lab-synthesized solutions to the biggest problems facing us today.
In the fight to save us from pollution, scientists are looking into enzymes that ‘eat’ plastic like a food source. Breaking down plastic into its building blocks can allow us to recycle it endlessly and accelerate environmental clean up. We could find proteins that ‘eat’ carbon out of the atmosphere, or even faster routes to viable nuclear fusion reactors. Touted as the ‘holy grail’ clean energy of the future, nuclear fusion still looks to be decades away. Unlocking its power sooner could tip the scales in our efforts to halt climate change.
As pioneers like DeepMind CEO Demis Hassabis remind us, these powerful new tools carry unforeseen risk. In the wrong hands, this technology could be used to game the financial market, for example, or even design sophisticated biological warfare. With its capacity to generate deadly pathogens, it can uncover around 40,000 possible chemical weapons in 6 hours, according to a recent paper.
This is without speculating on the AI doom scenario, where artificial general intelligence (AGI) surpasses human intelligence and turns against us in unexpected ways. However uncertain our AI future, Hassabis is also hopeful AGI could drive us toward ‘radical abundance’: a world with more equality, more resources, and more wealth. If so, these miracle proteins might just give us a head start.