We don’t often think about microorganisms, except when they’re making our lives miserable.
But, amid the bugs that keep you out of work and the teeny buggers doing something gross in your fridge, there’s also the wonder of biotechnology. It turns out that microorganisms are capable of way more than we thought.
How much more? As we harness these viruses, and unlock their potential, there are, quite literally, world changing possibilities. Electricity from squeezing things. Encryption done with biological processes. And, of course, using microorganisms to clean up other microorganisms, which isn’t new but is getting crazy advanced.
Here are five ways tiny little buggers are going to make the future awesome.
Killing Other Bugs
We already do this, of course: turning microorganisms on each other to eliminate harmful ones is nothing new. But we’re rapidly refining the technique with genetic engineering, to the point where a virus like T7 can wipe out biofilms with ease.
Biofilms are collections of microorganisms, and you don’t generally want them around: they can trigger outbreaks of disease and even destroy pieces of infrastructure. Worse, as they consist of multiple organisms, they’re usually resistant to anti-biotics. But now it’s just a matter of unleashing T7 on them.
If you can’t eat ’em…eat ’em.
By Making Sure You Never Need To Plug In Your Phone Again
M13 is not a virus you should be worried about; it only attacks bacteria. But it has a very useful property: it naturally arranges itself into a film. So engineers at Berkeley decided to give it another useful property: making it piezoelectric. In other words, if you squeeze it, shake it, or otherwise jostle it, this bioengineered M13 emits electricity.
In other words, your phone can be powered by your picking it up and giving it a nice hard shake. Your laptop can get a small charge every time you press a key. Bacterial batteries are a growing subsection of the power race, but M13 has the potential to make them nearly obsolete.
By Filling In Those Cracks In Your Foundation
Newcastle University is going to have a massive endowment very soon. Why? Because it can fill tiny holes, that’s how.
It’s because of the BacillaFilla, a microorganism that’s been engineered to swim to the bottom of cracks in concrete, and then start excreting a type of bacterial glue and calcium carbonate.
The result is concrete structures that last longer, thus helping the environment by reducing emissions…but it’s also the start of other designs, like viruses that construct buildings, or swim into your bones and fill in simple fractures.
Putting a Petabyte Drive on Your Desk
E. Coli is not the most popular microorganism on the block. It gets a bad rap because some strains are pretty nasty. But others are incredibly useful: it’s so common because it’s so easy to bioengineer. And one way of using it may make your hard drive obsolete while vastly increasing your storage.
The details are fairly complex, but what this boils down to is encoding your information as DNA sequences and storing it in the bacteria. It gets better, though. This is a naturally encrypted biological hard drive, as you need a specific algorithm to properly decode the stored DNA sequences.
So, not only do you get more storage, you get safer storage. Thanks, E. Coli!
Helping Us Better Understand Evolution
As we all learned in science class, evolution is a scientific theory: that is, all the evidence points to it being true, but it’s difficult to observe actually happening.
Unless you happen to have bacteria around that you watch very closely. In 2008, Richard Lenski made scientific history by demonstrating that E. Coli he’d been observing for twenty years had developed a sudden and dramatic mutation: an ability to consume citrate. Considering that E. Coli not being able to consume citrate is one of the key definitions of the species, that’s kind of a big deal.
Bacteria are great for studying evolution because, well, they reproduce quickly and die quickly, so you can do what Lenski did, which was descend colonies from one bacterium and see how they change over time.
It’s also useful for demonstrating that Richard Lenski doesn’t suffer fools who can’t even understand his data gladly, but that’s just a side benefit.