Will we one day design and create molecules, cells and microorganisms that produce specific chemical products from simple, readily-available, inexpensive starting materials? Will the synthetic organic chemistry now used to produce pharmaceutical drugs, plastics and a host of other products eventually be surpassed by metabolic engineering as the mainstay of our chemical industries? Yes, according to Jay Keasling, chemical engineer and one of the world’s foremost practitioners of metabolic engineering.
I read this and think of colonizing other planets. Why? Any colonization ship won't be able to carry along huge amounts of capital equipment. To produce a substantial fraction of the goods (e.g. drugs, textiles, lubricants, paints) that we use we will need very small devices (whether DNA-based or not) to carry along that can replicate themselves in vats set up once a colony is established. We need biotechnology in order to move off-world.
In theory engineering microorganisms to do our bidding ought to lower production costs. Though the microorganisms will still need growing vats with complex control systems to provide optimal growth conditions.
In a paper published in the journal Science titled “Manufacturing molecules through metabolic engineering,” Keasling discusses the potential of metabolic engineering – one of the principal techniques of modern biotechnology – for the microbial production of many of the chemicals that are currently derived from non-renewable resources or limited natural resources. Examples include, among a great many other possibilities, the replacement of gasoline and other transportation fuels with clean, green and renewable biofuels.
“Continued development of the tools of metabolic engineering will be necessary to expand the range of products that can be produced using biological systems, Keasling says. “However, when more of these tools are available, metabolic engineering should be just as powerful as synthetic organic chemistry, and together the two disciplines can greatly expand the number of chemical products available from renewable resources.”
In a Mars colony genetically engineered plants would have one big advantage over genetically engineered microorganisms: no need for vats. Picture a Mars colony with a large enclosed area with a variety of plants growing inside that area producing drugs and textiles. Could microorganisms grow the transparent air-tight shell material needed to create the plant growing areas?