I am a bit obsessed with plant galls (the study of which is called cecidology). Here is a plant leaf:
Observing it, you might think that you know what this plant’s genome can make – a flat, green structure. But, with the help of a non-human bioengineer – a parasite such as a wasp, which can hack the cells with signals we do not yet understand – we find out that these cellular swarms actually have much more morphogenetic competency: they can make the amazing structures below, all without changes of the genome. By studying this kind of bioprompting, we get closer to understanding the latent space of form and function around the typical default outcomes of a given genome. Such constructs (including synthetic biologicals such as Xenobots) represent a kind of periscope, with which to peek into the latent space of life-as-it-can-be, or better yet, an exploratory vehicle with which to navigate that space to identify useful and informative shapes that can result from the same genomically-specified hardware. Our lab and others are working to crack the morphogenetic code and learn how to program such collective intelligences as they navigate the anatomical, physiological, and metabolic worlds in which they live. Truly transformative advances in regenerative medicine and engineering await.