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Back when I was a teenager devouring science fiction novels, I read a wonderful short story written in 1941 by Theodore Sturgeon, called “microcosmic gods.” Sturgeon’s god was Mr Kidder, an amateur scientist who had the great idea that – instead of trying to invent new products on his own – he could create his own fast-living species and they could invent for him, solving any problem that Mr Kidder could pose, if not within one generation, then in no more than two or three. Mr Kidder’s microcosmic civilisation invented, among other things, super-strong aluminium, a generator powered by cosmic energy, and an impenetrable force field.

The thing about science fiction is that it guesses right in unanticipated ways, and so, while we still don’t have any of those inventions, we do now have experimental evolution. Labs around the world regularly use microbes, which evolve quickly, to solve problems in…

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