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Programming Biology
David Bochner
Posted April 2007

Drew Endy likes taking things apart and putting them back together—bikes, cars, lawn mowers. He essentially does the same thing when he tries to understand biology. A professor at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, Endy assembles and programs living machines. I asked him a few questions about his work and why he likes it.

What got you interested in science?

I'm curious. It bothers me when I don't understand how things work.

You're trained as an engineer. How does that influence your approach to biology?

If you ask engineers what they want to do in their heart, they want to make something. My interest is to be able to routinely, reliably, quickly, easily and cheaply put together the bits and pieces of biology to make new and useful things

With the help of a Hollywood illustrator and others, Endy created a comic book called Adventures in Synthetic Biology. He hopes to use it as a teaching tool. Drew Endy
With the help of a Hollywood illustrator and others, Endy created a comic book called Adventures in Synthetic BiologyExternal link. He hopes to use it as a teaching tool.
Credit: Drew Endy

You're in a new field called synthetic biology. What's the goal of this field?

It's to make routine the engineering—the programming—of living organisms.

Why do you want to do this?

I started to think about why it's been so hard to understand biology. The conclusion I've come to is that the biological systems we find in nature aren't easy to understand. I figure that if I want to have biology that I understand, I'd be better off building it myself.

What makes the field so hot right now?

Seventy years ago, physicists came into biology and really shook things up. I suspect that what's happening now is that the engineers are coming into biology, and they're going to shake things up.

Describe your typical day.

I feel like I'm an enzyme, helping stuff happen. I teach courses on synthetic biology, and I supervise the research in my lab. Every now and then I get a little bit of time to think.

What have you thought about lately?

Are we discovering biology faster or slower than nature is inventing new biology? I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations, and this number could be completely wrong, but sometime between the year 2085 and 2105 we should be able to sequence all the DNA on the planet in a month.

What do you like most about your job?

The people in research are some of the coolest, [most] interesting [and] nicest people you're ever going to meet. It's just a great experience.

What do you think makes for a successful scientist?

The best, most fun-loving, happy scientists I've seen are the people who recognize when an idea isn't working and abandon it for a better idea without feeling too bad.

Do you think you'll always be a scientist?

I'm doing what I want to be doing, and if I wasn't, I would change it. If at some point in the future, I'd rather be raising pheasants in southern France, or northern France, or wherever they raise pheasants in France, I presume I would go do that. Of course, I'd have to learn French.

Last words?

People express great wonderment, excitement and almost a magical relationship with the living world. But I think over the coming years—faster than most expect—we'll see a transition in biology where it becomes much simpler and easier to engineer living systems. We don't actually know how to do that right now, but there are lessons buried in the lore and wisdom of other engineering disciplines.

Learn about related research

This page last reviewed on April 22, 2011