Sunday, October 18, 2009

Bootstrapped Bioheists

The 19th century is regarded as the century of chemistry: immediately following the turn thereof, water was found to be one part oxygen with two parts hydrogen; Wöhler's synthesis of urea in 1828 shattered the notion of living compounds sacrosancticty; benzene was isolated mid century; and before its close the majority of the naturally occurring elements had been discovered and arranged on the periodic table.

The 20th century is considered the century of physics: Einstein had already published his theory of special relativity by 1905; with Rutherford's model of the atom with Bohr's later refinements aptly explaining a fundamental level of matter soon afterwards; and the ability by the 1960s to produce both fusion weapons and integrated circuits demonstrates the scale and subtlety of human understanding of physics.

This century is proving to be one of biology with a rough draft of the human genome published in 2000 (completed by 2003), a synthetic virus produced by 2002, and gene-therapy's holy grail of somatic cell manipulation achieved with elegance by 2009. As our understanding of the mechanics of life approaches the grasping strength achieved in the aforementioned fields, there will be profound and remarkable shifts not only in our world, but even in what is considered to be our world.

Recently, researchers developed a method that allows the venomous payload of a sea anemone's stinging cells (cnidocytes) to be replaced with therapeutic compounds. In short, the millions of small spring-loaded needles that penetrate the integument of prey on contact become vectors for medicines. The cnidocytes essentially become hypoepidermic needles (the injection apparatus, scaled in nanometers, does not reach below the entire skin).

This is not, by any measure, a major development. It isn't fission, it isn't nitrogen fertilizers, it isn't the battery; it isn't even vinyl. It is a small, insignificant manipulation of nature's technology for other purposes. It will be able to provide a marginally improved method of topical drug delivery, or perhaps make a sunscreen that is harder to wash off.

No one will reflect, "Wow, my grandparents lived before they were able to refill cnidocytes!" or wonder what life was like before this development, or write alternate histories that show how the world would have developed without cnidocyte manipulation.

Yet despite all the ways in which this is so obscure, it required a neologism to describe it; "hypoepidermic". A language with around 170,000 words was beggared by a minuscule piece of obscure research, that at best will cure diseases of the skin more effectively than current methods.

Imagine a larger, significant, paradigm shifting discovery.

What words will be needed from simply trying to keep our world within our language?

What new thoughts will be needed?

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