“Time after time we have rushed back to nature’s cupboard for cures to illnesses,” noted the United Nations in declaring 2010 the International Year of Biodiversity. Billions of years of evolution have equipped natural organisms with an incredible diversity of genetically encoded wealth, which, given our biological nature as humans, presents great potential when it comes to understanding our physiology and advancing our medicine. Natural products such as penicillin and aspirin are used daily to treat disease, yeast and corn yield biofuels, and viruses can deliver therapeutic genes into the body. Some of the most powerful tools for understanding biology, such as the PCR reaction, which enables DNA to be amplified and analyzed starting from tiny samples, or the green fluorescent protein (GFP), which glows green and thus enables proteins and processes to be visualized in living cells, are bioengineering applications of genes that occur in specialized organisms in specific ecological niches. But how exactly do these tools make it from the wild to benchtop or bedside?
Many bioengineering applications of natural products take place long after the basic science discovery of the product itself. For example, Osamu Shimomura, who first isolated GFP from jellyfish in the 1960s, and who won a share of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, once explained: “I don’t do my research for application, or any benefit. I just do my research to understand why jellyfish luminesce.” Around 30 years later, Douglas Prasher, Martin Chalfie, and Roger Tsien and their colleagues isolated the gene for GFP, expressed it, and began altering the gene, enabling countless new kinds of study. Bioengineering can emerge from the conscious exploration of nature, although sometimes with long latency. Every gene product is a potential tool for perturbing or observing a biological process, as long as bioengineers proactively imagine and explore the significance of each finding in order to convert natural products into tools.
Conversely, many bioengineering needs are probably satisfied, at least in part, by a process found somewhere in nature–whether it’s making magnetic nanoparticles, or sensing heat, or synthesizing structural polymers, or implementing complex computations. The question in basic science often boils down to how generally important a process is across ecological diversity, but a bioengineer only needs one example of something to begin copying, utilizing, and modifying it.
If we can build more direct connections between bioengineering and the fields of ecology and basic organismal sciences–converging at a place you might call “econeering”–we could together meet urgent bioengineering needs more quickly, and direct resources toward basic science discovery. Scientists could deploy these basic science discoveries more rapidly for human bioengineering benefit.
Recently we’ve begun to examine some of the emerging principles of econeering, as we and others pioneer a new area–the use of natural reagents to mediate control of biological processes using light, sometimes called “optogenetics.”
As an example: Opsins are light-sensitive proteins that can, among other things, naturally alter the voltage of cells when they’re illuminated with light. They’re almost like tiny, genetically encoded solar cells. Many opsins are found in organisms that live in extreme environments, like salty ponds. The opsins help these organisms sense light and convert it into biologically useful forms of energy, an evolutionarily early sort of photosynthesis.