What is Xenobiology?

27 February 2018

Interview with

Markus Schmidt, Biofaction

Editing biology opens up worlds of opportunity, but there’s the chance it will be absorbed into the natural world - and this very concern makes it hard to run tests to establish how likely this is. But what if you had a system that used the rules of biology, but was completely separate to it? This is where Xenobiology might have something different to add, as Dr. Markus Schmidt, the founder of the company Biofaction in Vienna, explained to Georgia Mills. 

Markus - Xenobiology is a combination of two words: biology and Xeno and xeno comes from the Greek language and means foreigner or stranger. It means that this is a form of biology that is strange or unknown to the biology that we know so it’s a kind of biology that is going to be invented in the laboratories.

Georgia - Dr Markus Schmidt is the founder of the company Biofaction in Vienna.

Markus - One of the applications that I’m interested in is increasing or improving biocontainment. If you take an example from the computer world, you have Microsoft or Apple or Linux operating systems and there are viruses around or ransomware or whatever, malicious software that can affect your computer and you have to constantly have to update your computer. If you write a virus, for example, for Microsoft system it’s supposedly not going to affect a Macintosh or Linux system. They are seperated because they are made up in a different way.

If you look at biology and living systems, practically all of them have the same operating system in the way that they use the same chemistry and they use the same genetic code. That means that viruses from the natural world can also easily evolve and effect all kinds of different systems. But if I have a different operating system, then you would be spared from this kind of threat or evolution and xenobiology can, in principle, come up with a solution to isolate these new genetic models from the living world so that they would not do any harm to the environment. This is one of the major applications that seem to be of interest to any kind of other application that could come out of it.

Georgia - Okay. So there’s this idea that because they’re such different codes in xenobiology that it wouldn’t be able to integrate with all of our natural living things today and it wouldn’t have this chance to be either eaten by something or transfer the information across which could have runaway unintended consequences?

Markus - Yes, exactly. You can see that our current living systems, they’re quite similar on a chemical basis. Plants look very different from an animal or bacteria but, on a chemical level, they’re quite similar. If you were able to make a different chemical system that is not too different from biology, except that it cannot interact or has a different language, you can make a different island and isolate these new forms of life from the existing forms of life. That means they would not be able to interact or exchange genetic information. They could interact on the level of using resources that’s true, but not on an information level. This is what’s called a genetic firewall that there’s no giving and receiving of information between these two islands, and making such an island is one of the goals when it comes to biocontainment.

Georgia - Like if you tore the ends off a jigsaw piece it wouldn’t fit into the puzzle, xenobiology wouldn’t be able to integrate with the rest of nature. In the field they call this idea of being mutually exclusive orthogonality. But this idea of increasing containment, it isn’t the only reason for wanting to engineer biology 2.0…

Markus - There are different possibilities to let’s say materialise lifeforms. So instead of having DNA that is the normal storage molecule for genetic information you could use different chemicals to store information. But, for some reason, nature just uses one type of molecule and it is not quite clear why this is just this one molecule. Was it a kind of frozen accident in the past and is maintained over time or are all the other chemical possibilities not as good for survival? In the laboratories now they’re trying to make diverse types of this to see if others have different features which could be of interest. Changing the chemistry of the basic living molecules that make up life is one of the goals of xenobiology. The other one is to change the semantics, the way that information is processed in the cell.

Normally we have in the cell the genetic information that is included in DNA which is then translated into an amino acid alphabet and this translation is what is called the genetic code, so to interpret and to understand what is written in the genetic information you need the genetic code. But there are so many possible genetic codes and nature only uses a very very small number of that. It’s interesting to find out what other possible codes could be realised with these two examples. There’s a great chance to come up with some new applications or some new metabolic pathways to solve environmental problems, or industrial problems and biological problems that cannot be resolved with existing biological systems.

There is one belief in the beauty of nature, and this belief says that nature has tried all the different possibilities out, and that it came out in the end with the best possible solution. It’s the belief that nature is the ultimate wisdom, it is a supreme mechanism that spits out the best possible solution. There’s a heretic movement in biology that says maybe this is not the case, maybe humans can find other solutions that have, in some circumstances, better features, better characteristics and that’s what xenobiology tries to do.

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