Team:NAWI Graz/Interviews


To evaluate the safety assessment of our project and to get possible ideas for improvements, we interviewed experts from different scientifically fields and discussed our project with them. It was a good way to incorporate the different opinions in our project design.

Would you like to briefly introduce yourself?

I studied biochemistry in Tübingen, Germany and now I research and teach molecular biology and genetics. My research topics are very deep and important ones. It is life, aging and death. But the microorganism I am investigating is bakers yeast. Although we are not really interested in how old bakers yeast can get, we use it as a model for human beings and yeast has many advantages.

This century is the century of microbiology, the last one was the century of physics and chemistry. We run out of natural resources and microbiology can provide these resources. In the future, energy, plastic, gas or hydrogen gas and drugs will be produced with GMOs. Maybe even informatic tools will be driven by GMOs. Because they are self-renewing. We just need some ions, sugar and light and it works. When working with biology, we have evolution on our side, we can modify the organisms in a way that they improve and otherwise we try to somehow counteract evolution, thinking of antibiotic resistances for example.

Great and innovative, basic experiments are very straight forward. I am looking forward to seeing how it will transfer to the informatics part. There is a lot of potential in it. Microorganisms are normally not "bit-like", they are normally not reacting with a yes or no. And another big chance is in the area of modified response. Like when our liver gets in contact with a hormone, which makes it produce some enzymes e.g. for digestion, not all cells react at the same time, some start earlier some start later, which is very important. I think there is a big chance that you can get temporary response in that way.

I do not see any risks, the way you planned your experiment. Just one general potential risk, that maybe you expect too much too fast. Especially in gene technology, thinking of gene therapy, it was predicted, that we will win against all genetic diseases plus cancer. But it does take longer than expected. You need the power of endurance. Since some parts take longer than expected.

If you really want to switch on and off, I think it will be sugars or other switching drugs, which give maximum responses. But maybe you can also think about specified organisms, maybe oxygen in the air for aerobic organisms, so maybe you can produce sensors for that and get a graduated response, as I said before, that not all the bacteria in the culture switch at the same moment.

It is a big problem. We are falling behind, since there is this mistrust in genes. Just think about the fact that things are labeled gene free, it has created a very bad atmosphere towards such a promising technology. As I said before, I think the future lies in biotechnology and genetic modification. The funny thing is, that if you modify organisms blindly by radiation or cross two species that is defined as natural and the result is good, but if a scientist takes a certain gene and puts it into an organism, it must be bad and it must be financed by Monsanto. Another important thing to think about, is why are there just big companies like Monsanto, which have monopoles in this field. It is because of the laws and the controls are so strict that a small company has no chance to afford that. I was quite shocked when the amflora potato, which was intended to be used just for the production of glue was forbidden in Europe.

Would you like to briefly introduce yourself?

I established the institute of molecular biotechnology at the University of Technology in Graz and I was also involved in setting up the Austrian Center for Industrial Biotechnology (acib). At this stage I am already retired as a professor, but I am still active at acib and still involved in some projects of acib.

What comes first to my mind is a very well defined biological system, which in general is very well characterized and sometimes in contrast to organisms which have been derived by classical mutagenesis and a good basis of understanding of those organisms. We can also generate really specific features of such organisms. We can define the biological capabilities of such organisms and we can design very specific biosystems. The genetically modified organisms have a very important role in modern biotechnology, most bioprocesses would not work economically and technologically feasible without using GMOs.

In general it is an interesting topic, connecting biosystems with robotic systems. Such ideas have been on the wave for a longer time, but this is a very specific project, which directly tries navigating a robot system by biological functions, so this is a very interesting line. Furthermore, I see potential to learn about basic behavior in such interfaces, you would also learn how to trigger a biosystem to be exact enough to be able to provide signals for the robot system.

I do not really see a potential risk, only if the biosystem directs the robot into a wall, but only for the robot itself (laughs).

There is already a very deep development in this area, I see a very big future for this combination, because we have already seen that the use of the features of biological systems can be very important in many, many areas, to provide new solutions which we might need in the future. The combination of nanotechnology, biology and nano structures can also be integrated into biological systems. I also see a strong development in industrial technology, strong replacement of chemical processes by biological based processes may be reached and allows production of chemical products in a much let's say cleaner way, an environmentally friendlier way. You can more precisely define the products.

Safety guidelines are always an important issue. One of the main issues is that since genetically engineering is used (for about 40 years) no serious accident has happened, where the use of gene technology was the reason for an accident. And the reason for that is that guidelines for a safe use of this technology were developed very early. If iGEM provides such technology, they also have to provide the rules on how to use it. Because with gene technology you also have the problem that you can enter areas where there are some risks too.

I think the iGEM guidelines support a very safe working area. Because of course, if students do not have a long experience, they do not know which areas are risky and what areas can be handled in a safe manner. And such guidelines provide this information for the students. From this point of view, I think it is a very good set-up, but on the other hand it is important that young students learn to work with such techniques under safe conditions. So in combination with the proper guidelines, there should not be a risk that the students would have any problems.

It is totally a great idea. On the one hand it provides experience and a lot of enthusiasm for the students and on the other hand, some ideas might also be suitable for further development in the future, e.g. for industrial approaches.

Would you like to briefly introduce yourself?

Well, my name is Karina Preis-Landl, I am an assistant professor at the Institute of Molecular Biosciences, Biochemistry and I am a microbiologist from training, but just since my second postdoc time at the Institute of Biochemistry.

Genetically modified microorganisms are an important tool. So not only in science, but also in biotechnology and industry. Partly controversial, but the new generations will certainly evoke a change of consciousness. With this CRISPR/Cas9 system there will certainly be a big change. Extremely big potential.

Yes, it was very exciting to read the project description, although I have never considered it from these points of view and it was actually the first point of contact that the processor can be practically replaced. It was above all an extension of the horizon for me. It was very exciting.

None, none at all. So from the point of view of biological safety, I see no risk whatsoever behind it and I mean the organisms that are bred in it are, so to speak, pets and according to certain measures it is handled accordingly. It is a closed system so I would not associate any risks.

So as you have described, it is a huge opportunity, because you could practically extremely expand the computing power through parallelism. That is a huge potential, when it works (laughs). Otherwise, I see a huge potential for microorganisms in connection with biotechnology or technology as a whole. If we remember that maybe we only know one percent of microorganisms that exist globally at the moment, there is still an inexhaustible potential. In my opinion, the greatest potential lies in the generation of alternative energies, since above all the conversion of solar energy. The photosynthetically active microorganisms offer a very large potential, although there the development proceeds relatively slowly, but I think that has only something to do with investment. Too little investment in the field. And the second is that I believe that the problem of climate change will not be solved without microorganisms, without knowledge and without commitment. These are actually the two.

Yes, great possibility. If I were in your age once again, I would also use this possibility.

No problem. Especially at your project, what should go wrong? Nothing in my humble opinion.

No, I can answer that with a clear no. I can not believe it. I rather believe that this is a social-political problem, that the worlds hunger is related to the stabilization of economies and inequality in distribution, which, in my opinion, is still the main problem for hunger. What will be certain in the future is that due to the climate change, certain areas of cultivation may be restricted and that the genetic engineering provides the opportunity to produce crops that can be successfully used, for example, in dry areas. Here I already see potential and a possibility. But that it actually wipes the hunger from the world, the genetically modified plants certainly will not. Nevertheless, the problem of the world remains open, since the use of genetically modified plants gives rise to monopole. This is again a social-political and economic-political problem. This has little to do with technology and science. One can not solve the other now. It needs a social dialogue that brings this together and regulates it.

Would you like to briefly introduce yourself?

My name is Gabriele Berg and I come from Germany, but I have been in the Austrian Chair for Environmental Biotechnology at Graz University of Technology for 12 years. In our research we are involved with microbiomes, in a specific place or in a particular organism. On the one hand we investigate these things and on the other hand we also try to transfer new knowledge into application, like biotechnological applications.

So if I am honest, then I would first think of great potential for research, secondly difficulties in the application and I would immediately encounter hurdles in the registry. As a third point I would gladly mention that it is of course an infinite natural diversity of microorganisms from which we have only really understood and analyzed a very small percentage so far. In this respect from 25 years of research experience, my conclusion is that diversity is the most important and I would rather have a look, if I could also find the potential in this natural variety.

I really find this extremely exciting and innovative. We ourselves try to do so. We try to connect the technique with the microbiome, with the microbiology. I believe that there is really an unimaginable potential that we cannot imagine, so I find it very good that you are dealing with it, even if it is now, so to speak, the interaction between a robot and a microorganism, but I find that is a very good and exciting application.

In principle, we carry risks all the time and, of course, also such a project, so in this aspect it is always important to weigh which risks are bigger or which risks are more dangerous. I think in this case, of course, the robot could somehow have a problem and the genetically modified MOs might be leaky. Genetically engineered MOs are not automatically dangerous. It strongly depends on the specific transgenes they carry, which promoters are in there, so there is actually a much more detailed evaluation necessary to make any statement. And there are also many MOs which are little risky and nature makes it happen. Always a major risk point of transgenic organisms is that the transgene migrates from one organism to the other. In nature it happens permanently and perhaps is a good example. We carry 2 kg of MOs inside us, so it would be natural that the robot follows the holobiontics concept and carries MOs in itself. However, I would argue for more diversity.

In the last few years we have noticed that microbiomes are severely impoverished in their diversity, both in humans and in the high-performance animals and plants, so a future field is surely the microbiome engineering and we also need the technology.

Yes, I think it is great and I would like every student to participate. The studies are often very tedious and you have to learn very much and it is far from its later field of application, namely the right research, and the sooner you get in touch with this research, the better it is to estimate whether you have selected the right one, gaining experience and seeing achievements, so I think that is a great thing.

We also teach the risks and I think that everyone has to take on some responsibility in the course of his studies, at the latest with his Master thesis, and should not just say that these are my results and they are statistically significant or not. So, there are always risks, but I also think it is important to gain experience.

The ultimate solution certainly not, because there is no black and white here. I would imagine that it makes sense for certain regions or for different plants, but overall it is really important to preserve the diversity of our crops. We have a lot of cultivar adapted to the specific conditions of the ground and I am personally worried about the fact, that developing countries in particular may not have the right seeds from the corresponding crops. For example, we have a project with Africa. It is all about healthy vegetables and you cannot imagine how difficult it was to organize vegetable seeds at all. We have other problems as well. When talking about genetically modified MOs, it must always be considered in detail, who will use them, which property will be transferred. Of course, much of this is herbicide tolerance now. So a detailed look is necessary. It certainly is not the ultimate solution.

Would you like to briefly introduce yourself?

I am professor for microbiology at the Karl-Franzens University of Graz and I work at the Institute of Molecular Biosciences. I participate in research and teaching. As chairman of the curricula commission I am also responsible for studies. The scientific field which I am working on at the moment is HTG (horizontal gene transfer). I research how molecular genes are transmitted through, so-called bacterial conjugation. This plays a role in the medical field, in the transmission of antibiotic resistance genes. Moreover, I am examining molecular regulatory mechanisms in bacterial population. Not all organisms of a population express DNA transfer genes, so there is also a variety. On the other hand I am working together with the Institute of Applied Geosciences. We are investigating the phenomenon that in concrete structures, within a few years, the construction is eaten by bacteria that settle there and thereby destroy the sewage system. Since this is very costly, we are looking for new materials which are not attackable by the bacteria.

There is great potential in the field of the MOs. Whereby I believe that we do not yet know, which variety of bacteria and archaea is present and what possibilities we have to use this variety, e.g. in biotechnological processes. First we have to identify genes that are suitable for the production of certain substances. We would also have to genetically modulate MOs to take full advantage of the existing potential. I am also thinking about bioremediation - environmental detoxification by MOs. On poisonous waste dumps we can find bacteria and MOs which can degrade these substances. It is also about recognizing what is there and then trying to use these organisms also purposefully.

I do not see any risks with this experiment now. Neither the MOs used nor the machines controlled by them. As long as the MOs are not released, there is also no danger of HGT.

I think that your experiment is very exciting. And that a linkage between a biological and a technical system can make a lot of sense, since certain sensor systems are present in some MOs. They are very sensitive, one can directly couple many changes in the organism, such as e.g. in your case with movement. What also stands in the foreground is the work in the laboratory, and the attempt to really implement this idea and you will see how difficult it is to implement ideas that you have.

I cannot imagine anything specific yet, but the possibility to connect a biological system with a purely technical system is very exciting. I think that the knowledge, which can be gained from this research, could be very well applied to other fields, especially in the medical field e.g. the control of prostheses.

At this point, it must be said that regulatory mechanisms in bacteria are very diverse. It is often thought that bacteria are very simple creatures, but it must be mentioned that highly complex regulation mechanisms are present in bacteria. If you only think of the quorum sensing, they perceive how many of their species are around in their environment or where there is food. They also record temperature changes and many other special signal paths are available. I could imagine for example a quorum sensing system to control a process. In addition, there is heterogeneity within a population. There is also some sort of division of work within a population, some cells have certain functions.

The legal basis is sufficient in my opinion and would also allow the release of genetically modified plants that would be useful in agriculture. As far as I know, there has never been a release attempt in Austria. While the legal basis is clear, it does not seem politically feasible for research to be conducted in this direction in Austria either. In my opinion, the existing potential is very large. However, the focus is mainly on the dangers. But at least in medicine, genetic engineering is gaining greater acceptance, presumably because of the hope for a longer and healthier life. A greater danger is actually e.g. the addition of antibiotics in food. The risks of genetically modified plants are overestimated in comparison.

Would you like to briefly introduce yourself?

I am a university professor, BSL Safety Officer and research project leader. I am on the board of the ÖGMBT and FWF (member of the board of trustees). I am also working on questions of infection biology (e.g. cholera and invasive infections e.g. meningitis/pneumonia).

Jonathan Beckwith cloned the first gene from E. coli in 1969 and already warned in the seventies about misuse by gene manipulation. I am also wondering what comes next? Keywords: euthanasia, racephilosophy, phenotype, genotype manipulations and selectivity.

I think it is clever in the construction, e.g. the short half-life of the fluorescent dyes by TEV-proteolysis. I also liked the riboswitch control. I think it is consistent in the concept. However, in this case autonomously is equated with uncontrolled, then I foresee rather bad prospects. You should remember to install firewalls. In the long-run the application on humans would be very interesting - connection of neurons and CPUs.

In the present case, I see no risks as long as the bacteria do not control a tank autonomously. Otherwise, this concept (adopted to humans) will influence evolution, meaning that it will have an immense influence by concept.

Unprecedented possibilities will open up, the long overdue bio-revolution, according to the nuclear, chemical and IT revolution. Whether it will have a good or bad impact remains questionable. I think it could contribute to a quantum leap in human development.

I think about a two-component system (transcription) coupled with post-translational modifications (glycosylation, etc.), coupled to proteolysis regulation (fast disposal), all in a network regulation (forward-positive-/negative-feedback-loops).

Petunias (ornamental flowers) have been on the market everywhere for 40 years, e.g. in supermarkets and hardware stores worldwide. Recently, it has been shown that genetically modified Petunias have emerged within these plant species. You do not know where they come from. Therefore, legal regulation is rather important. Nowhere in the world this regulation is handled as strictly as in Austria and in the EU, which is quite good. And as a consumer, everyone should have the right to know, if he/she will become a test rabbit.

Would you like to briefly introduce yourself?

My name is Daniel and I am a student of molecular-microbiology at Karl-Franzens University of Graz and I am also a member of the Open Biolab Graz-Austria. It is a free time lab, an open biolab and a biohacking makerspace, so we are doing some genetically engineering stuff and we are pleased to have you here.

Would you like to talk about your work at OLGA (Open BioLab Graz-Austria)?

OLGAis the first biohacking laboratory in Europe, which was allowed to work with genetically engineered organisms. Of course, it was a hard way to achieve this, because we were a group of students of molecular biology, who shared the idea to have our own laboratory, for working on our own ideas. We wanted to work on creative ideas and not be restricted with some bureaucracy or financial problems, which can occur at the universities. And that is why we said that we want our own space, to work on our own ideas and create what we think would be right for us. So, we searched for people who are interested in this idea and we created this laboratory on our own. We had no funders and did everything by our own. Now we are like a hackerspace, where technology and biology are connected at some point. This laboratory is open for everybody, who is interested in molecular biology and other related science disciplines.

Well, when I think about genetically modified microorganisms, I am thinking about the words responsibility, creativity and sustainability.

Well, it is a nice idea to connect biology and technology and it has great potential. Biology and technology as separate things are not new, but the connection of both of them can create a lot of possibilities, so I think it could be a great project.

There are a lot of potential risks in genetic engineering itself, so yes, somebody can try to do some bad things with this kind of technology, but it is your responsibility to take care of it.

It is a wide field of technologies, for example technologies for environmental signal processing, so you can check for environmental changes in a habitat or when there is some pollution in the environment. This could be a nice idea for the future.

There are many regulators in a bacterial system and I am not really an expert in these kind of things, but I would use something, which is not harmful like GFP, regulated by the lacZ-operon. That would be okay, because it is a basic system, which is working in any kind of bacteria so I would start with this.

Yes, I think it is a good idea to do that, but you have to check everything around it, the free space, the creative space and well iGEM could be a space like this, but this is a competition so I am not sure if all of the members would feel like they could work on their own or maybe they have some restrictions like financial problems or something like that.

Of course, somebody can do something stupid, but who does not? So of course, you need some advisors to guide you just a little bit and help you, if something goes wrong, but I think that is not such a big risk or problem.

It is really a very controversial topic and personally I think it would be better, if we can make regulations that are based on real facts and not on some “emotional” opinions. It would be good if we have some real experts in regulatory positions, which introduce the regulations and these regulations should not restrict any kind of scientists, who want to work with them, but it should be clear that genetically modified organisms are used for scientific purposes and not just for a companies profit.

Would you like to briefly introduce yourself?

I am the CEO of BriefcaseBiotec. This is a Startup that works with Kilobaser. Kilobaser is the first personal DNA printer. I studied molecular biology, but it appeared very soon very boring to me. Then I established the OpenBiolab in Graz, the first Biohacker Space in the German-speaking area and then the company was formed.

Basically, I think computers or silicon-based systems have their maximum capacity that might be possible. In the field of sensors, bacteria or microorganisms are ahead in many areas and perhaps always will be. In that sense, it is certainly a field that has a future.

I don’t really see any risks.

That is a good question. It certainly has its applications, if it is so easy to handle, that is the question. In the industry, things have to always work, or work consistent, and that is a big challenge, and there are so many research projects that looked good, but in practice, they were not good enough.

I think it is very good. I think this strongly promotes the idea that students can touch, learn and applicate new things by themselves, because the universities have unfortunately not so much space for creativity. Therefore iGEM is a very good exercise to progress, learn and perhaps also start a company. I believe that iGEM has definitely built something and it provides more publicity for synthetic biology and genetic engineering. I think it is great that you get challenged at iGEM. What i see critical is that many teams start a project and never finish, it is just forgotten next year. But if you say the way is the destination, then that is great. But in general I think iGEM is a great thing.

Our society has become way too anxious about many things. On the one hand, people complain about the fact that all children just play with their computers, and on the other hand, you are not given the chance to gain experience or do anything by yourself that is interesting in chemistry, biotechnology or biology. But I believe that the fears are much bigger than the actual risks.

My great hope is, if I am properly informed, there is a directional decision by the EU concerning CRISPR/Cas9 next March, that it is going to be liberalized.

Hello Dr. Schmickl, thank you for taking the time speaking with us. Lets just go right into it. Can you tell us who you are and what you are doing, what you are working with?

My name is Thomas Schmickl. I am biologist by training, but I have a high affinity to computers and programming, so I try to use that in my biological studies. Therefore, my lab's name is „The artificial life lab” and we try to use bio-robots and swarm robotics there, but always to understand nature better and understand life better.

Through my training I have no means to tell, whether this is too dangerous or not. I have never been dealing with ethics in my studies and I cannot calculate the risks in any numerical way. What I know is, that living systems are always self-organized systems. There is a lot of microscopic processes going on inside of a life form and then you will see emerging phenomena arising from that and they are basically unpredictable beforehand. If you play around with the genetic code of organisms, there is a danger that you change those microscopic processes and that something you did not expect will appear. Whether this is dangerous or not, is something that I cannot answer, but it is something that you should be aware of. Yes, it is our job as scientists to push the door wide open and gather all knowledge we can gather. It is then the job of regulators and politicians to create frameworks to prevent potential risks from happening.

So, what I said in my previous answer was, that it is very difficult to predict the emerging phenomena. They might be surprisingly welcome, or they might be surprisingly dangerous. Both is possible, and I personally lack the data, which is more likely than the other, but there will be surprises, and this can be on the good side or will fall on the bad side. Concerning technology assessment, following the same line is a very bad idea to even believe that something like that is possible and useful. If I build a bomb or if I build a killer virus, I do not need to study technology assessment to tell that this is not a good idea and that this is dangerous. So whenever it is obvious, I can easily tell. The only interesting part is, when this is not obvious - how should I tell if a technology becomes dangerous in the future - especially when it is cross effected by other technologies that are not known today, but will only be known in 10, 50, 100 years. My classical example is the invention of the telephone. Today smart-phone private based taxi drivers might render classical taxi drivers jobless and put them at higher social risk. Still it would be ridiculous to blame the invention of the telephone hundred something years ago for lowering the life quality of taxi drivers today. You can, in principle, not predict what will come from a technology that is invented today. It is in principle impossible to accept in some obvious cases, where we do not need technology assessments, that is like common knowledge and some basic thinking that can give you an answer.

Different technology fields, well genetically modified organisms are probably a little bit more dangerous than classical mechatronic devices, because there is this additional feature of reproduction that every living organism has and in reproduction there is potential spread and in potential spread there is potential danger, so I would rank them always one level higher in the danger level then mechatronic or electronic developments.

A relative simple one compared to other technologies. I say this one is more likely to become dangerous than another once - yes - but not in a way like it is normally understood. I cannot tell today, whether I should invest time into this invention or not, because there might be something dangerous coming out of it. That is strictly not foreseeable. You suggest just to explore all the new technologies to a certain point and then think about the implications or to which point to go. For example, with GMOs, is it a good idea to do the studies behind closed doors to try not to get modified organisms out? Having secure laboratories is a prerequisite, but I think this is how it is done everywhere in the world and there are standards. Of course, these standards are important. For me the question is more, should I deeply understand those organisms, and should I understand them so deeply that I can reprogram them? And this is the tricky question, because if I fully understand them, of course I can unlock a lot of potential, but I also can unlock a lot of harm and this is the old question in this discussion. Should I then seek for this understanding or should I not? It is not about lab standards or stuff like that. I think this is out of dispute.

But you already do that to some extend when you say that there is a potential risks, when something is able to self-replicate and spread. Why is that not already some sort of technology assessment?

Yes, maybe, but it is still an assessment. In every horror movie you must kill it before it lays eggs. (laughter) Or something like that, I mean this is trivial and I think this is what farmers did since centuries. When they were encountering, I do not know some investigation with some parasites or some diseases in their animals that they try to separate and prevent the spreading and so on. I hope for myself, this is trivial for me. The real question is, should we open the door and look inside or should we not? This is a tricky question and this is an ethical philosophical question that cannot be countered by lab doors I think. It is a start with the idea, with an idea of a new technology. Yes, probably yes, that is why I am being in favor of opening the door, because we scientists should seek for knowledge and this is the higher gain and then we should have regulations and politics around that and forbid any abuse of that and try to prevent most of the abuse of it. This is us job as scientists, that we gather knowledge and we are aware that this is a dangerous thing that we are doing.

So, I like the concept of understanding life. What makes a living thing different from a non-living thing? One way to approach this is to try to create, as a farfetched goal, something which is lifelike or living from scratch, because the basic idea is, if you can build it you have understood it. So, having this farfetched goal which we probably will never achieve in our lifetime, we search for the building blocks to build such an artificial life form. These building blocks contain understanding, to get those building blocks, we must understand it, but by bit, how life works, how it functions, what life is. Therefore, I like this overhaul goal of artificial life. Sometimes, it is worded, also in a different way that we seek for life. Not how it is, but how it can be. So, we are searching for alternative forms of life. Also, this is a very interesting goal, because it brings you to a different perspective where you see the more general principles of life. If you are too much focused on the life that we see on our earth, then we can be maybe over focused and general enough and this might prevent a more general understanding of life.

It is called artificial life. It is not seeking for an answer to the question, how life can be in all its variants. It is very much focused on the life that we know on earth. It is built from this knowledge that was gained. I do not know how much we will learn from that. Maybe, it is of practical interest for not only genetically modified organisms, but also for morphologically and physiologically modified organism. Maybe, it is the next step of practical applications, but I doubt that we will learn much new things about life in general. If I compare it, to building a house for example, it is like I have a house to build from concrete and wood and some glass windows and I remove them and then I go somewhere and bring new glass windows, new concrete and new wooden parts and would build this house again. I build this house from scratch. What I am interested in more, is how could I build a house from water for example, what would I have to do and is it still a house? And by doing so, I learn more about the house. What makes a house a house and not just like? rebuilding, what is already known.

As I said, it is a very open field. There can be any form that fulfills some basic requirements of life, what is a discussion itself, which I will not start here. For example, reproduction, inheritance and evolution over time are important. But also, self-repair and self-sustainability of these organisms are important. And it can come in various forms and the most likely form that we will encounter is, of course, robots. We see a quantum leap in robotics today, ranging from autonomous cars over legged robots, very small robot swarms. So, robotics is a booming field and in addition to that, we see artificial intelligence, adaptive algorithms but also, software is having sort of a quantum leap and maybe even material science will have a quantum leap soon with this graphene project and so on. Batteries will have a quantum leap and computation. Maybe, with quantum computers we will have a real quantum leap. So, bringing all this thing together, it is very likely that in 10 till 20 years, we will have machines, which are in discriminable from humans for example and definitely we are life forms - and machines that are not discriminable from ourselves, will they also, be life forms or not?

It is an artificial life that these people are doing. The question is, how interesting it is and how much we will learn from that, that we could not learn in another way? For me, another important step is that these are all unicellular organisms. They might be interesting, but they cannot do much. So real work is not achieved by unicellular organisms. They produce substances, maybe they can even change their color or emit light or something like that. But for example, if I compare this to a robot, there is no work that can be done by these organisms. A classical application for a robot is to wash my dishes and clean my house, and another one would be maybe for safeguarding my house against thieves or something like that and none by these features can be done by unicellular organisms. Not even billions of unicellular organism will ever bring my dishes from the table to the dishwasher and put them into the cupboard afterwards. That is basically not possible. So, when we look at life, I think we must discriminate between green slime and what we usually comprehend as life, which are higher plants and higher animals and there is a huge difference in the work they can do. Artificial life, maybe, can be seen also along this line, so we have one branch, which maybe can produce insulin very cheaply or very efficiently and we have another line of artificial life, mostly mimicking multicellular higher animals, sometimes also plants. They can achieve real work and do maybe much more interesting and helpful things for humans, except building chemical substances.

I think, it is a robotic idea that we also once had, but it never made it into a proposal or something like that. It is rather obvious what you want to have. There is a sort of autonomous robot and if you go to the very end of the line of an autonomous robot, you have an artificial animal and such an autonomous robot should collect plastic, rebuild itself because it is built from plastic. So, that it can collect more plastic and then of course collect even more plastic so this is the way how you would approach that. Yes, so you can probably take concepts of cell replication and so on, but if it really should achieve work, it needs muscles, it needs a nervous system, it needs the ability to create, it needs a sort of skeleton and joints to be able to apply force. Growth alone is probably not enough for achieving any of those tasks.

I think for them, it was an important experience, especially for my students which are biology students mostly. They can get a little bit closer to biology again, because in the time in my lab they had to program a lot and work with engineering questions, what brought them maybe a little bit away from biology. And by now integrating those organisms into their artificial life forms they are partially creating, they must deal again with physiological aspects of unicellular organisms for example. What I think was a very important part, so that they work in the lab and their studies are now closer together again. The second thing is that they got some insight in how the scientific community works or how life as a scientist looks like and you must find an interesting topic that you can work on. On the one hand you have to find financial support for doing this and you must involve the public, whom you must tell in the end. I mean in most cases they pay, it is mostly taxpayer money, that we use, and we must explain to the public, what we are using their money for and why we use it this way and not in a different way and all those components are all part of this iGEM program or iGEM strategy, which is I think a very interesting part of learning how to do science and this is what I hope what my students learned.

Should we change that? It is the job of university to teach knowledge and because many people go through a university, which do not end up as scientists. I do not have numbers, but I guess 90% of the people will do something else than science after their studies, so is it really the job of a university to teach also the life as a scientist? I think for this such projects like iGEM would be, I think a better solution.

No skills? I do not say no skills, but what you are referring to are social skills and of course social skills are important, but how to finance for example, how to gather financing for a specific study, something that in most cases scientists need, as soon as you go to a company you probably do not must search for that, because development will be paid by your company for example and if you become a teacher, then of course you do not have that and so on and so on, and you must look at the spectrum of things that people have to know. I would be afraid to bring universities too much into that field, where you just train for your job that you are going to do. This is what we have in Austria, so called “Fachhochschule”, and this is what they do, and I think universities should not become like that. University is a place for thinking and for most people university is a time in their life, where they spend on thinking in a way they will never do it again. It is a very special time period of your life and a very special place and this is how it should be. You can get your soft skills anywhere out there, does not mean you should not have any soft skills trained at university, but the main aspect of university should be thinking and promoting thinking, critical thinking, like rethinking what has been thought before and discussing and all of that there is little place in your work life for that and has nothing to do with soft skills. It is a special place and time in your life.

Would you like to briefly introduce yourself?

My full name is Joshua Cherian Varughese, I am an electrical engineer by basic trait and I did my masters in mechatronics, so I got involved in robotics, came to the Artificial Life Lab in Graz to work on a project called SubCultron. We are making a swarm of robots to deploy in the Laguna of Venice to do some environmental monitoring and measurements which hopefully will lead to some more ecological policy changes.

I think it is really cool that an organism can interface or even control a robot. I think we will see massive changes of how a robot will look like. I think it is a starting point and will hopefully end in a robot that becomes a useful robot in our day-to-day life.

Definitely, definitely, so right now in our robots we have space occupied for computational hardware, so I would imagine a microorganism to be micro, so it occupies less space and I would imagine a robot with a microorganism based controller to be much smaller than robots that we have today. So yes, I would definitely see potential applications.

I do not really see a such a risk, but I see a challenge. We would have to change the way we think about controlling, programming, paradigms that we have laid down for sequential processing. Until now we use CPUs and maybe when we talk about parallel processing we use GPUs, but we are still working very sequential.

Definitely! If I look at how architectures are changing, and we are slowly moving towards this more parallel processing structures. GPUs already have a more parallel processing structure, but this might be a paradigm shift, where we cross the threshold to some kind of completely different architecture, if it is successfully implemented as a computer.

So, if we look at the past few years and look at which areas have benefited from the increasing parallel processing, I would say there are two main areas that come quickly to my mind. There is a natural language processing and more widely known is computer vision or image processing. So I would expect that these fields would massively benefit from parallel processing. And talking about microorganisms that can be used as computers – they might become, for example, very, very good in understanding sounds. We are able to use Google Translate today because of convolutional neural networks that have gotten really good in understanding what we are speaking and any massively parallel system could implement a CNN to do the same things. So, I would expect these two fields to massively benefit from any massively parallel system.

Yes, if we can dream. If I have a very small, strong computer, I can have an implant in my ear with a microphone and a speaker. If you then talk to me in German that processing unit can change that input signal into the language I understand and then I can speak back. That would be an application I could think of. If I want to do that today, I probably need a huge computer, at least in comparison to a microorganism based computer.

I guess the controversy comes from the term modified, people want to remain the way they are, they do not want anything modified. I do not think that we should stop progressing because of fears. I am going to take the philosophical point of few that we have to improve, we have to develop things and hope that the right people be at the right places at the right time to take the right decisions. Of course we will need controls and do whatever is needed that it does not end up in the wrong hands, but that does not mean that we stop progressing in this direction.

When we heard about microwaves heating our food, there were a lot of people going crazy saying that we will all die of cancer. But when we were actually starting using it, we actually saw that this is fine. That would be my approach, just do things that help people and then the society is going to understand. We always have, and we always have been growing over our natural inhibitions. And I think that genetically modified organisms will make a huge difference and people are going to see it.

Would you like to briefly introduce yourself?

I am a zoologist. I am working here in the Artificial Life Lab on the topics of bionics, bioinspired algorithms and interaction of artificial life forms e.g. robots and life forms e.g. honey bees. But also with fish and in the Colibot project and also with microorganisms.

  • Big potential for society, for industry to produce things, actually many GMOs are already in use to produce substances in industrial areas
  • Big discussion in public about GMOs, whether they are dangerous or not
  • On the one hand, there is a big industry working with GMOs on the other hand we do not fully understand what could happen, this is a field where I think that still research should be done,
  • While working on the Colibot project I found out, that there are still open fields for GMOs, where they can be used, this is what we research at the moment
  • There should be an open discussion about GMOs based on research/facts done by independent researchers

The general idea to use GMOs to control technical entities opens new doors. The idea to control technical devices with GMOs has, from my point of view, a lot of potential. But we are still at the beginning of finding out what this potential is. GMOs are used for a lot of things nowadays, but as far as I know, they are rarely used to communicate with other systems. This is a thing we would like to change. We would like to show that GMOs are capable to communicate with other entities. We want to improve the existing way that GMOs are used for communication. The idea behind is that we do not only use GMOs for production, we use them also for communication, e.g. tell a user about the status or tell a machine what to do, to solve problems which usually can only be solved in very expensive ways by classical entities. GMOs have abilities that we miss in classical robots, e.g. they are very cheap to produce and reproduce, also regarding sensing they are able to detect substances and situations that are hardly detectable by detecting devices. We want to show that we can use GMOs for more things than just production.

There is no new technology or no new machine you produce, that is completely without risks. First of all, what we use here is a life form, even if they are very small, and life forms do not react in a perfect determined way, they sometimes react different than you expect. The thing is, if you need a perfectly determined system, that reacts in a perfect way, still the classical silicon chip is the better solution, but if you give tolerance, than these kinds of processes are usable for you. The other thing discussed regarding MOs is what happens, if they get into the environment. The question is, can these modifications jump from one life form to another and what happens if they jump. I would not expect that the MOs do any harm, if they get into the environment. I can imagine that they lose their abilities pretty fast if released. But therefore, we have restrictions we should keep to.

As mentioned before, GMOs as life forms have sensors for chemical substances, that go far beyond the technical sensors we use today. They are far better in detecting substances. The question is, if we can manage an interface between GMOs and machines that allows us to use e.g. E. coli as a sensor for something. We can also use GMOs as controller devices, however a big problem is the speed of the reaction. Usually people say there is no chance that you can use bacteria as processing devices, as they have comparatively long cycle lengths. We would need new algorithms that can run on a CPU, where thousands of single devices communicate to each other and calculate things. The real advantage might only show when we combine different kinds of bacteria and create a smart ecosystem of different GMOs. They might have different tasks, some might for example support or organize the others.

I do not think that a microorganism based computer can replace our day-to-day computers. They are already established and proved themselves as useful. But there are special operation areas, where we would need massive parallel systems.