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Bioengineers Hope to Build Life

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Bioengineers Hope to Build Life

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Bioengineers Hope to Build Life

Bioengineers Hope to Build Life

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Students of bioengineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology work with the organic building blocks of life. As Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad of Radio Lab report, the science could someday create new forms.


Every once in a while our colleague, esteemed science correspondent Robert Krulwich pops in here on the BPP, but it's usually because something has gone terrible terribly wrong. We call it an Emergency Krulwich, then we play a report by Robert to avoid impending dead air.

But today we actually planned an appearance by Robert and his trusty sidekick Jad Abumrad. Together they produce Radio Lab out of WNYC here in New York, and we can't properly introduce this story without a little bit of magical Radio Lab music.

(Soundbite of music)

PESCA: Sort of a soundscape that crazy genius Jad Abumrad comes up with. Engineers build bridges, buildings, roads, structures that shelter us, and help move us around, but now there's a new class of engineer, people who build living things.

They call themselves "bioengineers. "They work with organic chemicals to make changes in living things, to create new kinds of life, and though this is still a distant goal, one day they may build life from scratch, from non-life. Here's NPR's Robert Krulwich.

ROBERT KRULWICH: I've been looking at the promises of this new field, bioengineering, and nobody waxes more eloquent or dreams more broadly about this than Freeman Dyson.

JAD ABUMRAD: Who is, by the way, a physicist at Princeton, and famous for his work in quantum mechanics.

KRULWICH: So, let me just play you what he said at a graduation speech he gave recently at the University of Michigan.

(Soundbite of speech)

Dr. FREEMAN DYSON (Physics, Princeton University): There will be do-it-yourself kits for gardeners who will use genetic engineering to breed new varieties of roses and orchids, kits for lovers of pigeons, and parrots, and lizards, and snakes to breed new varieties of pets. Genetic engineering, once it gets into the hands of housewives and children, will give us an explosion of diversity of new living creatures.

ABUMRAD: That's quite a vision. So Robert, let me ask, how far off do you think this sci-fi future is?

KRULWICH: Far, far? It's not far off! It is here, it is now. There are already kids today who are up to their chins in bioengineering.

ABUMRAD: Really?

KRULWICH: How old were you when you did this?

Mr. STEVEN PAYNE (Student, Massachusetts Institute of Technology): I guess I was 20. I'm 21 right now.

KRULWICH: Ok, who are you? What's your name, and what do you do?

Mr. PAYNE: I'm Steven Payne(ph), and I'm a senior in biological engineering at MIT.

KRULWICH: Now, here's the thing about Steven. He, like most kids who are in the sciences in college, had to spend hours and hours and hours in the lab waiting for E. coli to slowly grow in a Petri dish.

ABUMRAD: E. coli, like the stuff that gives you food poisoning?

KRULWICH: Yeah, it's common bacteria that lives naturally in your gut, and it's, by the way, a big laboratory favorite. And the problem is, says Reshma Sath, who's a grad student at MIT, is E. coli in the raw...

Ms. RESHMA SATH (Student, Massachusetts Institute of Technology): Actually smells really bad.

KRULWICH: What does it smell like?

Ms. SATH: It actually kind of smells, I guess maybe like poo. No! What do you think it smells like?

KRULWICH: Feces. Anyway, Steven and his friends got it into their heads that they could make...

Ms. SATH: Make E. coli that smell...

KRULWICH: You know, nicer.

Ms. SATH: Yup, nicer smelling.

KRULWICH: Like cinnamon, or cherry.

Ms. SATH: Or like minty fresh.

Mr. PAYNE: We ended up deciding on wintergreen.

ABUMRAD: Wintergreen?

KRULWICH: What, you've got something against wintergreen?

ABUMRAD: What, me, no!

KRULWICH: In the real world, who has wintergreen?

Mr. PAYNE: It's the petunia plant.

KRULWICH: Petunias have wintergreen? I had no idea.

Ms. SATH: Yeah, a lot of folks study why plants make nice smells. So, why do roses smell nice? Why do petunias smell nice? So, what we did was we requested from one of these folks, Natalia Dudareva from Perdue University. We asked her to send us a sample of one of the genes she had studied - produces this wintergreen cell.

Mr. PAYNE: She mailed it.

Ms. SATH: Through the mail.

Mr. PAYNE: We opened it up.

Ms. SATH: We took it...

Mr. PAYNE: We took it out.

KRULWICH: What were you taking out? A little bit of gunk?

Mr. PAYNE: It's actually living cells, living dried cells.

Ms. SATH: Yeah, we pulled out the DNA, put it into a new cell...

KRULWICH: And once the new DNA had done its thing, Steven called everybody into the lab.

Ms. SATH: And then we all came over and we were like, whoa! These, you know, this E. coli culture actually does smell like mint.

Mr. PAYNE: And we were like, yay.

Ms. SATH: That's crazy.


Mr. PAYNE: Yay.

ABUMRAD: So, instead of smelling poo all day, they get to smell wintergreen.

KRULWICH: Well, no actually there was more than that because after their wintergreen success, Steven and Reshma decided, you know, why should we stay in the lab all day even though it smells nicer now?

Because we have to sit there and watch these E. coli grow, and grow, and grow until they are ready to be experimented on. We could be outside playing Frisbee. So, they decided to put a little trigger inside the E. coli, so when it's done growing, it switches from wintergreen to banana.

ABUMRAD: Banana?


Ms. SATH: Yeah, the banana...

KRULWICH: So banana!

Ms. SATH: It smells like a banana milkshake. I mean, it smells more like a banana than a banana does.

KRULWICH: So, wintergreen means it's still growing, and banana means we're done?

Ms. SATH: Yup. Guys, that's truly kind of awe-inspiring.

ABUMRAD: Absolutely! They're kind of grabbing evolution by the scruff of the neck, in a way.

KRULWICH: Well, but, one does wonder, since we are here talking about constructing life, whether we really ought to be doing this thing with quite such abandon.

Were you at all intrigued by the idea that as far as I know, and I'm - maybe as far as you know, maybe as far as anybody knows, in the history of the E. coli creature there has never been an E. coli that smelled like wintergreen?

Mr. PAYNE: Yup.

KRULWICH: You made it yourself.

Mr. PAYNE: Well, with the help of my team members, yes.

KRULWICH: Did you feel a little spooked by the fact that you just created a life form new to creation?

Mr. PAYNE: I mean, at least we're doing something that's, you know, smells pleasant.

KRULWICH: But you didn't feel like Dr. Frankenstein, or God, or...

Mr. PAYNE: Not at all.

KRULWICH: What does it feel like to make something that's never existed before?

Mr. PAYNE: It just feels like basic engineering.

Ms. SATH: Yeah, we're engineers. I would say we're engineers. We're building stuff, building stuff, building stuff.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Building stuff, stuff, stuff, and not just stuff, stuff, stuff, but living stuff, stuff, stuff.

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) The road ahead is bright and clear because we're geneticists.

Unidentified Man #3: (Singing) I'd rather be swapping genes.

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) It's mankind's only fighting chance. Designer genes, not designer pants, will stop disease, and greenhouse gases, sequencing nucleic acids. Crack the code, we've seen the light.

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) We're building stuff. We're building life!

Unidentified Man #3: (Singing) Building life!

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) The road ahead is bright and clear because we're bioengineers.

Unidentified Man #3: (Singing) We're building stuff!

PESCA: That was Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad of Radio Lab, produced by WNYC, and distributed by NPR. You can find a link to that story and to Radio Lab at our website,

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