George Church, who helped start the Human Genome Project, doesn't need millennia for evolution... just a few days.
He and his Harvard Medical research team invented a table-top machine that speeds up the evolutionary process by generating multiple changes in the DNA of bacteria. Theoretically, according to Church, these techniques can be used to develop cotton that's waterproof or bananas that stay ripe for months.
Manipulating bacterial cells has been around since the inception of biotechnology, but MAGE (Multiplex Automated Genetic Engineering) can adjust the types of alterations by inserting or deleting genes in the bacteria. This somewhat controls the billions of cellular mutations allowing the researchers to create new organisms. First published in 2009, Church is now looking to sell the device for around $90,000 to over a dozen companies, including DuPont.
Currently, researchers can't predict the various organisms they create, so Church proposes that the U.S. government draw up regulations to monitor or prevent research that might create new viruses / pathogens, since this synthetic biology could possibly be used for bioterrorism.
The possibilities are enormous and the benefits could be huge, but this feels eerily like a zombie flick: a group of researchers stumble upon something they shouldn't have, and a mysterious viral pandemic turns most of us all into zombies. Remember, the mall is a good place to hide.