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Saturday, November 07, 2009

Rolling Your Own - Probiotics

The annual international genetically engineered machines competition, the iGEM, takes place at MIT each November. Students combine small fragments of DNA and swap them into bacteria, yeasts, or other one-celled organisms to produce new variants that can do specialized tasks. They get better at this each year, as the earlier fragments, known simply as "parts," get added to a library of functions. Much the same way as programming languages accrete blocks of code that can be dropped into place so that coders don't need to solve the same problems over and over again, but can simply and easily rely on the earlier ingenuity of others.

In previous years, students have used these bacteria for such tasks as making "probiotic bacteria, like that found in yogurt, designed to fight cavities, produce vitamins, and treat lactose intolerance" according to MIT's Technology Review magazine.

For all the hype and fear about frankenfoods, genetically tailored beasties are far more likely to do us a world of good than harm. This can't guarantee that every bacteria will be perfectly functional any more than every bit of computer code is perfect. How many people would ask that all computer programs be banned or destroyed because of that tiny risk? Genetically engineered bacteria will no more plague the world than computers will band together to get rid of us. This will remain true no matter how many movies Hollywood makes.

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