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A Revolutionary Convergence:
Biology, engineering and a new age of scientific progress By Bill Hamilton

Innovation, creativity and a willingness to merge disciplines are key to solving the humanitarian and environmental challenges we face in the 21st century.

Dr. Susan Hockfield presents on a future shaped by "Convergence 2.0."

Forging ahead requires building from watershed moments in the history of science and technology. The 19th and early 20th centuries established periods of scientific innovation thanks to the prize-winning work with electromagnetics from Michael Faraday and the discovery of electrons by Nobel Laureate J.J. Thomson. The combination ushered in an era that saw the convergence of physics and engineering, or what Dr. Susan Hockfield, president emerita of MIT and author of The Age of Living Machines: How Biology Will Build the Next Technology Revolution, refers to as "Convergence 1.0."

A digital tech revolution defined the 20th century, putting science at the doorstep of "Convergence 2.0." This wave of innovation will be the meeting place of the fields of biology and engineering — and define our future.

The convergence of biology and engineering drives innovation through collaboration. This next wave of cross-disciplinary science holds the potential to create new products, industries and economic growth.

We are about to enter an era of unprecedented innovation and prosperity and the prospects for a better future could not be more exciting.

— Dr. Susan Hockfield, The Age of Living Machines

Proof points can be seen in the already-rapid pace of scientific advancement. For example, the Human Genome Project set the precedent for this revolutionary trajectory by successfully completing the sequencing of a human genome in 2003. At that time, it cost around $150 million and took 10 to 12 years to sequence one human genome. Today, scientists can perform the same feat in six minutes.

Parallel to this increasing advancement is a growing need. The cost of and access to healthcare is emerging as one of the primary challenges of our time. Our population is estimated to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, according to the UN World Population Prospectus 2019 — a change compounded by stresses on the security of clean water, food and a need for sufficient, sustainable energy.

In response, scientists increasingly seek convergence to deliver necessary progress. Many effective solutions draw upon the engineering inherent in the biological systems surrounding us, leveraging an existing overlap between the disciplines.

At MIT, Dr. Sangita Bhatia develops cancer-detecting enzymes and Dr. Angela Belcher constructs coin cell batteries from viruses and abalone shells. At Johns Hopkins University, Nobel Laureate Dr. Peter Agre's discovery of the aquaporin protein in cell walls is now being used to engineer water filters. For each project, the ingenuity of nature's inherent technology drives progress forward as modern biology and engineering come together. In this sense, Convergence 2.0 delivers a natural solution for increased scientific advancement.

As Hockfield writes in the prologue of The Age of Living Machines, "We are about to enter an era of unprecedented innovation and prosperity and the prospects for a better future could not be more exciting."

The 21st century holds infinite promise — and it is only just beginning.