Foresight Update 4
A publication of the Foresight Institute
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
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.]
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
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
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:
- save species and ecosystems in the long term
- make clear the lifesaving potential of nanotechnology
- build our natural alliance with politically-powerful
- draw attention to the potential of advanced
technologies--if used well--to help us heal and restore
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
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
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.
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
Molecular Electronics--Science and Technology,
Feb. 19-24, Keauhou Kona, Hawaii, $690. Sponsored by Engineering
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.
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.
From Foresight Update 4, originally
published 15 October 1988.
Foresight thanks Dave Kilbridge for converting Update 4 to
html for this web page.