Foresight Update 4

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A publication of the Foresight Institute

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Nanotechnology at Stanford

About fifty students attended the ten-week course on "Nanotechnology and Exploratory Engineering" taught by FI's president Eric Drexler at Stanford during the spring quarter. The main body of the course was highly technical, drawing from the disciplines of physics, chemistry, computation, and engineering. Later sessions addressed applications in space development, warfare, and medicine, along with policy issues and an analysis of where we are today in developing the technology.

The course was audiotaped, and Jim Stevenson of NASA Ames and Jim Turney of Liberty Audio have volunteered to help produce a set of tapes suitable for distribution by FI. Please do not contact us yet for copies; we'll announce when they're ready. The tapes will probably not be transcribed, since they run for about twenty hours.

Many people have contacted us for further information on the course, such as which textbook was used. Engines of Creation was recommended reading, but copies of Drexler's technical papers were used as the main course notes. These are the same papers we've referenced in the FI Updates and Backgrounds. We can send you a copy of the syllabus; just send a stamped, self-addressed envelope. A molecular mechanics handout is also available, but will only be comprehensible to those who already have some knowledge of molecular mechanics.

Many have also asked when the course will be taught again: there are no plans to repeat the course in the immediate future. Instead, the instructor is working on a technical book which will both contain much more information than can be conveyed in the classroom and will be available to many more people.

[The book referred to is Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation (Wiley Interscience, 1992), or see our book order form.]

Foresight Update 4 - Table of Contents


BioArchive Project:
Saving Species through Nanotechnology

by Chris Peterson

In the 1990s, over 10,000 species per year are expected to become extinct. Three-quarters of the world's animal species may vanish in the next 25 years. Besides losing the intrinsic value of these animals and plants as part of today's environment, we face the destruction of priceless genetic information evolved over millions of years. Nanotechnology will one day let us restore lands torn by industry and agriculture, but without this genetic information, today's species and ecosystems will be lost forever. The simplest way to preserve species is to preserve their habitats, but the immediate survival needs of nearby human populations often make this practically impossible.

An alternate way to preserve endangered species was suggested in Eric Drexler's book Engines of Creation: preserving tissue samples in cryogenic storage. He pointed out that "preserving just tissue samples doesn't preserve the life of an animal or an ecosystem, but it does preserve the genetic heritage of the sampled species. We would be reckless if we failed to take out this insurance policy against the permanent loss of species. The prospect of cell repair machines thus affects our choices today." To pursue this option, the Foresight Institute is initiating the BioArchive Project.

This project will coordinate existing field workers with existing cryopreservation facilities to collect and store samples from endangered animal and plant species, establishing a group of low-cost gene banks distributed around the U.S. and--ideally--the world. Since the rainforest environment of the Amazon River basin is both rich in species and under intense pressure from human populations, it is a natural focus for early efforts.

We are fortunate that the task of freezing species samples was begun even before understanding of nanotechnology showed how they could be restored. Germ cells of endangered species, along with other cells from common animals, are stored at liquid nitrogen temperatures at the Center for Reproduction of Endangered Species (CRES) at the San Diego Zoo. This effort focuses on freezing germ cells and embryos, since when warmed up they are often viable without the need for cell repair technology. The freezers containing these treasures have been labeled "Frozen Zoo: Twentieth Century Ark."

Dr. Barbara Durrant told Update that "Right now the Frozen Zoo contains cells representing virtually every mammalian species on Earth. Mostly, these are blood and skin cells for chromosome studies that help us in making breeding decisions." Dr. Durrant explained that quite a few bird, reptile, and amphibian species were included, but no insects.

FI's goal is to spread awareness of the long-term value of such samples, to establish multiple sites as backups in case of disaster, and to develop a collection program so broad that even the many unknown, unclassified species are included, besides the well-known larger animals.

Seeds from today's plants are protected in seed banks, but again more sites are needed for redundancy's sake. We need to verify that storage is at sufficiently low temperatures, and that non-agricultural plants and even "weeds" are sampled.

To ensure that ecosystems--not just individual species--can someday be restored, we will encourage sampling of the widest possible range of plants and animals in an endangered area. This can be done far less expensively if no effort is made to identify each species or to keep them separate. With future technology to sort out the sampled cells, present day techniques can be quick and crude: To sample rainforest trees, use a helicopter to drag a bucket-rake through canopy, then freeze the leaf fragments. To sample soil insects, use standard progressive-drying techniques on soil samples to drive them out for freezing. A variety of techniques used by ecologists to sample populations will be applicable. We will need to freeze only a small volume of material from each area; this volume can be minimized (and costs reduced) by pulverizing and mixing samples before sending portions to each storage facility. To succeed, one need get only a few cells from each organism, and a cubic millimeter of tissue typically contains a million cells.

There may well be sample preservation efforts of which we're unaware, but an education effort is still required: the keepers of these samples need to understand that the DNA information itself is valuable, not just viable germ cells or viable seeds. (Literature from CRES, for example, stresses that they store "living cells and tissues.") Without this understanding, samples might be discarded if they couldn't recover from freezing spontaneously.

Why is the Foresight Institute the right group to start this project? First, we have the interest: our surveys show that over 95% of us see saving endangered species as an issue of "major," "historic," or "life-and-death" importance. Second, we can play a role in educating and coordinating at the start, and then step back: the project has a high payoff-to-effort ratio, so it isn't too ambitious for us to tackle. But most important, we are the only group which already sees the potential of restoring species from DNA only, via nanotechnology.

Heroic efforts to save species are already underway; groups like Conservation International play a key role in the habitat-preservation effort. FI fully supports this work, but we recognize that the high cost of preserving habitats means that many species will perish unless another method is tried. We see the BioArchive as a way to save the many species which existing conservation efforts can't reach in time, and a way to restore ecosystems when (as we expect) room for natural habitat begins to expand.

There may be objections to the BioArchive approach. Nature reports that "Scientists in the IUCN [Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources] argue that genetic resources are better protected in situ, by preserving species in their natural habitat to protect the full range of genetic variability, an advantage not shared by conservation in gene banks..." The IUCN advocates financing this work through a tax on commercial and industrial users of genetic material. But such an international tax would not be enough, even if it were collected: the total net profits for 1987 of the top fifteen biotechnology firms were only $7.7 million, with over half of the companies having a loss (The Economist, 30 Apr 88). These profits will increase over time, but species need preservation now.

Some might claim that a BioArchive effort will encroach on habitat-preservation resources and decrease the sense of urgency now felt for conservation efforts. We argue that the resources needed are minimal in comparison, and that the sense of urgency will only decrease to the extent that people are sure our approach will work--and if it will work, and if we know that it will, what would the future think of us for condemning so many species to an avoidable extinction? Our goal must be to maximize the results given the resources available, which are frighteningly modest. Besides, starting an additional effort will likely draw additional press coverage and additional funding.

The benefits of the project are clear. It will:

We're looking for volunteers to get the project off the ground. Here's what needs to be done:

Research: What efforts are already underway? Do the people involved understand the value of DNA as distinct from viable germ cells? Which scientists are already collecting and freezing samples?

Networking: Which environmental groups are interested? Is there another group in a better position than FI to coordinate this, and can they be convinced to take it on?

Planning: We need creative ideas on how to make this happen. For example, perhaps funds could be raised through an "Adopt-a-Species" approach, in which donators are rewarded with a certificate saying "You helped save 1000 endangered species."

Those interested should write FI to volunteer. Be aware that this is still in the idea stage; we are just now starting a database of volunteers. If you are experienced and concerned enough to head up the effort, perhaps to coordinate other volunteers, please call us at 415-364-8609.

Foresight Update 4 - Table of Contents


Upcoming Events

HyperExpo, Oct. 15-16, World Trade Center, Boston, MA. Panels, lectures, and exhibits on hypertext, hypermedia, and hypertext publishing. Contact 212-226-4141.

MIT Nanotechnology Symposium, Jan. 11-12, Cambridge, MA. Tentatively scheduled series of lectures, panel discussions. Sponsored by MIT Nanotechnology Study Group. Contact FI for more details in December.

AAAS Annual Meeting, Jan. 15-20, San Francisco, CA. Broadest general science forum, includes much of relevance to enabling technologies for nanotechnology. Last year's included a protein folding seminar.

Protein and Pharmaceutical Engineering Symposium, Jan. 17-22, Park City, UT. Sponsored by UCLA and Upjohn. Call 213-207-5042.

Molecular Electronics--Science and Technology, Feb. 19-24, Keauhou Kona, Hawaii, $690. Sponsored by Engineering Foundation, 212-705-7835.

Second Conference on Molecular Electronics and Biocomputers, Sept. 1989, Pushchino, USSR. Contact Dr. P.I. Lazarev, Research Computing Centre of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, Pushchino, Moscow Region, 142292 USSR.

4th International Symposium on Molecular Electronic Devices, Oct. 1989, Baltimore/DC area. Contact Dr. Richard Potember, 301-953-6251.

Foresight Update 4 - Table of Contents



Talks on nanotechnology continue to expose the concepts to critique and refinement. These have included: a presentation to an academic audience at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs; a keynote talk for DEC's Futures of Computing Workshop; a talk at IBM Santa Teresa as part of their Advanced Education Series, and a presentation to Upjohn executives. Other recent talks include a talk by Dr. Ralph Merkle on "Nanotechnology: Implications for Life Extension" at a conference in early September, a talk to the Government Systems Management Club of Control Data, and a lecture to a class at the LBJ School at the University of Texas at Austin. Past talks at the Third International Conference on Supercomputing and the National Space Society's Space Development Conference will appear as papers in the proceedings volumes; we'll let you know when they're available.

Talks on other topics of interest to FI have included a presentation by Mark S. Miller on Agoric Open Systems at the Open Systems Workshop held at Xerox PARC in June, and a talk on "Hypertext Publishing and the Evolution of Knowledge" at Sun Microsystems in July.

For further information on future talks, see the Upcoming Events list.

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From Foresight Update 4, originally published 15 October 1988.

Foresight thanks Dave Kilbridge for converting Update 4 to html for this web page.