Engineering Living Organisms Could Be the World’s Biggest Industry

By John Cumbers and Karl Schmieder | 14 May 2017

(Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay)

As part of our new book “What’s Your Bio Strategy?” we’ve interviewed dozens of entrepreneurs, business leaders and academics working on synthetic biology. The following is an excerpt from one of those interviews.

Andrew Hessel is a futurist at the forefront of synthetic biology. Trained in microbiology and genetics, he helps industry, academics and authorities better understand changes in the life sciences. He serves as the Distinguished Researcher with Autodesk Life Sciences. Andrew is one of the founders of Genome Project-write, an open, international project overseeing the engineering and testing of large genomes in cell lines.

John Cumbers: What do you think the biggest impact that Genome Project-write will have on humanity?

Andrew Hessel: We see writing a genome as the core technology for genetic engineering. It will supercharge the entire field. It will require the creation of better software design tools, better DNA synthesis and assembly technologies, and better test technologies. The project will accelerate the research and development necessary to engineer metabolisms, cells, tissues and organisms. It will also launch countless careers, unlock new economic resources, and impact almost every industry.

We changed the name from Human Genome Project-write to Genome Project-write because people were already working with different model organisms and we didn’t want to exclude the synthesis of any genome.

In the 1980s, I remember following the launch of the human genome project. I thought the idea of being able to read and write biology was awesome. At the time I was paying the bills by working with computers. Digital technologies make it possible for us to design the world around us – now including living things. Digital technologies have turned biology into a different field.

Karl Schmieder: How will industries be disrupted by our ability to engineer biology?

Andrew Hessel: I expect to see major changes in multiple industries.

For example, the biopharmaceutical industry already depends on biotechnology for its new product pipeline. Drug development will be touched by engineered biology across all disease categories.

In materials, we’ve tapped very few of the materials that biology can manufacture. Our ability to engineer biology will allow us to reach deep into the biological world and create novel materials better than those in nature.

Food is the place where biology touches us each and every day. It’s the first medicine. You are what you eat. The way we produce food is going to change radically based on our ability to engineer biology.

Our health depends on more than food. It also depends on our environment. We are living machines. The more we learn to harness living machines to maintain us and the environment, the closer we’ll come to achieving balance with nature. Right now, we’re changing the balance with nature faster than nature can compensate.

Semiconductors and electronics. This is going to be much bigger than people can imagine.

We are already attaching molecules to electronic systems and soon will create machines that interface with humans brains.

The semiconductor and electronics industries will get closer to the engineered biology community. I’ve been going to the SemiSynBio Meetings for years. It’s one of my favorite meetings because it’s where these two very powerful technologies come together to figure each other out.

Regulations should be looked at as an industry. It’s not right now, but it should be. Regulations are being disrupted because the current framework for oversight and regulations doesn’t work. As technologies accelerate, it’s going to get more difficult. Regulatory is adjacent to biosecurity, which also will become its own industry.

John Cumbers: Could you give us a vision of products that might come from the industries you mentioned?

Andrew Hessel: I want to be able to upload new genetic code into my cells. There’s no other way to stop diseases than by getting a new code into damaged cells. So, I’ve been looking at nanoparticles as delivery mechanisms.

In the consumer space, look at how cellphones have changed. In the movie Wall Street, Michael Douglas is using one of the first cell phones on the beach and it’s a giant brick. Over time, cell phones have gotten smaller, and the telephone part is just a tiny chip. If we continue to shrink the cell phone, soon, they will be the size of a mitochondria. The average human hair is 75 microns across, a mitochondria is one to ten microns in size. So maybe one day every cell can have its own electronic cell phone.

Or maybe we’ll be able to program cells to make their own phones. We’re just starting to build biological circuits. The circuits are very simple. When you start putting those circuits together, you get a radio. Add more circuits and you get a bi-directional radio – a phone.

Either way, imagine being able to communicate with every cell in your body. Then you can ask any cell, How are you feeling? After a hard weekend of partying, your liver can tell you it needs a break. You get the idea? It’s a self-cellphone.

Our ability to build biological circuits is revolutionary and it’s not a hundred years away. We could plot a graph on the electronics side to predict how long it will take. We’re very smart with electronics and good at making predictions. On the biological side, it’s less predictable but it will get better soon with more data.

Another idea. When my daughter was born a few years ago, we were frustrated because my wife couldn’t produce enough milk. Babies are made of milk. That’s all they eat for the first seven-eight months of life. Breast milk has huge immunological and developmental benefits.

Yet, there are few options for mothers if they can’t produce milk. Breast milk banks are not regulated. There’s a grey market for breastmilk but people cheat and adulterate the samples. Formula is literally a chemical mixture that tastes horrible.

I wanted engineered breastmilk and became an advisor to MuuFri (now named Perfect Day) since they’re using yeast to engineer milk. It’s not their focus right now, but maybe one day. In the meantime, there’s another startup, BioNascent, that has set their sights on making a better infant formula.

Wouldn’t it be better to have a creature, something furry and warm that had the ability to produce perfect breast milk? A non-sentient, biological organism that has been engineered to produce milk nutritionally equivalent to mother’s milk? A milk Tribble? That type of technology would be awesome for babies.

Karl Schmieder: Is there a biological technology that you wished you had?

Andrew Hessel: I want the enzymatic DNA synthesizer that will be at least a thousand times better than what we have today. Next-generation sequencing technology massively accelerated our ability to read DNA. An enzymatic DNA synthesizer could be the equivalent accelerator for engineered biology. If you can synthesize DNA faster, then you can conduct more experiments and learn faster. That’s what I’d like to see. More people programming life.

Reprinted with permission.

John Cumbers is the founder and CEO of SynBioBeta, the leading community of innovators, investors, engineers, and thinkers who share a passion for using synthetic biology to build a better, more sustainable universe. Follow him on Twitter @johncumbers.

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