Look at this thing. It looks like something you would find in a clogged drain after not cleaning it for a decade. But as gross as it looks, it may be the key to our technological future.
It's a living sponge. Or something like that. But it's alive. Kind of. This deformed ball is a mass of artificial cells, created from genetically engineered marine sponges. The synthetic cells have a plastic nucleus coated by a bubble of oil that acts as a cell membrane. Inside the cell there's a piece of DNA made from a random combination of silica-forming proteins that has randomly mutated.
Depending on the kind of original material used, the artificial cells produce different substances. Some create new structures of silicon dioxide, which could be used in future chips. Some other balls form new types of fibreglass, and even magnetic nanoparticles.
Scientists are using genetics because they want to use the rules of evolution to obtain completely new materials that would be perfect for current and future, unknown technologies. According to scientists at the University of California, Santa Barbara, "this approach will begin to allow the same DNA-based evolutionary processes that have created seashells and skeletons to be harnessed to advance human technologies."
That could be huge, as evolution is a powerful force that can push materials into places that we can't even imagine. [Ars Technica]