The Genesis Machine
with Andrew Hessel
The Genesis Machine
with Andrew Hessel
In episode 5 of The Futurists we delve into the world of synthetic and programmable genetics with one of the world’s foremost experts, Dr Andrew Hessel. We also discuss his latest book The Genesis Machine: Our Quest to Rewrite Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology and how computing advances that led to gene sequencing are now allowing us to think about editing genetics in the same way we program computers. What are the implications for humanity as this allows us to radically adapt our biology for new purposes and new futures?. Follow @andrewhessel
The Genesis Machine
Andrew Hessel is a micro-biologist and geneticist and entrepreur. He founded the Pink Army Cooperative (Crowdsourced Therapeutics for Breast Cancer), and Humane Genomics Inc (Artificial Virus Platform), he was a Distinguished Researcher at Autodesk Life Sciences. Hessel is co-chair of Bioinformatics and Biotechnology at Singularity University, and a fellow at the Institute for Science, Society, and Policy at the University of Ottawa. he co-founded Miikana Therapeutics, a clinical-stage drug development company. He has also been involved in Genome Project-Write since the start in 2016 and is currently Chairman of the Board and Co-Executive Director.
Synthetic biology is a field of science that involves redesigning organisms for useful purposes by engineering them to have new abilities.
DNA seen through the eyes of a coder , The language of DNA is digital, but not binary. Where binary encoding has 0 and 1 to work with (2 – hence the ‘bi’nary), DNA has 4 positions, T, C, G and A. Whereas a digital byte is mostly 8 binary digits, a DNA ‘byte’ (called a ‘codon’) has three digits.
2022 Book co written with Amy Webb – The Genesis Machine: Our Quest to Rewrite Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology Synthetic biology will revolutionize how we define family, how we identify disease and treat aging, where we make our homes, and how we nourish ourselves. This fast-growing field—which uses computers to modify or rewrite genetic code—has created revolutionary, groundbreaking solutions such as the mRNA COVID vaccines, IVF, and lab-grown hamburger that tastes like the real thing. It gives us options to deal with existential threats: climate change, food insecurity, and access to fuel. But there are significant risks.
DNA sequencing is a laboratory technique used to determine the exact sequence of bases (A, C, G, and T) in a DNA molecule.
Spike proteins are membrane proteins with typically large external ectodomains, a single transmembrane domain that anchors the protein in the viral envelope, and a short tail in the interior of the virio
Gene therapy is a medical field which focuses on the genetic modification of cells to produce a therapeutic effect or the treatment of disease by repairing or reconstructing defective genetic material.
Genome engineering, or gene editing, is a type of genetic engineering in which DNA is inserted, deleted, modified or replaced in the genome of a living organism. Unlike early genetic engineering techniques that randomly inserts genetic material into a host genome, genome editing targets the insertions to site specific locations.
Virotherapy is a treatment using biotechnology to convert viruses into therapeutic agents by reprogramming viruses to treat diseases.
Oncolytic viruses are a form of immunotherapy that uses viruses to infect and destroy cancer cells. Viruses are particles that infect or enter our cells and then use the cell’s genetic machinery to make copies of themselves and subsequently spread to surrounding uninfected cells.
Many transhumanists see genome editing as a potential tool for human enhancement.
Agricultural biotechnology is a collection of scientific techniques used to improve plants, animals and microorganisms. Based on an understanding of DNA, scientists have developed solutions to increase agricultural productivity.
bioengineering of yeasts to function as microfactories for the production of relevant compounds such as pharmaceuticals, biofuels, fine chemicals, or proteins.
The International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition is a worldwide synthetic biology competition that was initially aimed at undergraduate university students, but has since expanded to include divisions for high school students, entrepreneurs, and community laboratories, as well as ‘overgraduates’.
▬ Contents of this video ▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬▬
01:13 – Welcome Andrew Hessel Biohacker & synthetic biology leader
02:46 – Genetic code is open source
03:35 – DNA a Programming Language
04:35 – New book the Genesis Machine by Andrew Hessel
05:42 – What is crispr it is a gene editing technology
06:09 – Whats is synthetic biology
06:55 – sequencing genes
07:49 – editing and writing DNA code
08:36 – the world of synthetic biology
09:21 – MRNA vaccines enabled by synthetic biology
11:38 – he basic tenet of biology is dna to rna to protein
14:33 – anything that can be addressed through a biomolecule is within reach of this technology
15:21– humane genomics is a company focused on reprogramming viruses
16:17 – oncolytics which developing cancer-fighting materials within that is a branch called oncolytic virology
22:53 – ethical questions arising out of synthetic biology
24:40 – Biosecurity needs updating
25:54 – you’re not going to just freely release some kind of bio creature into the wild
29:56 – a lot of the activity in synthetic biology has been on non-human organisms microorganisms
31:15 – the vast dimensions uh of for the application of synthetic biology
33:22 -the ability there to reprogram the cell gives us the ability to start manufacturing new materials new proteins with high precision and optimize them for different purposes
35:51 – synthetic biology has many big applications that can in help us with sustainability
37:06 – Synthetic biology is going to help humanity thrive and be sustainable but they come with some risks
37:46 – regulating synthetic biology
39:47 – replacing petrochemical plastics with biodegradable engineered organic products
43:39 – igem the international genetically engineered machines organisation
this week on the futurists you know the mrna vaccines were it wasn’t just moderna it was biontech and others that had been working on this for years this was just an application that really had the urgency to to really push it through into our you know the marketplace in our arms very quickly but you know the real breakthrough there is that we went from manufacturing a vaccine in eggs or in in in the lab now your body becomes the manufacturing plant so to speak we’re really just putting in the program you know to make spike protein covid spike protein in your body your body manufactures it and ultimately produces the immune reaction to it which is how you get your your immunological defense
welcome to the futurists i’m brett king and with my co-host robert turcheck we delve into the future of humanity the future of technology and everything in between today we’re going to dive into biology and what it means in terms of forecasting how we think about that in the future well this week we’ve got somebody on our show that i’m very thrilled to include a long time friend of mine and someone who inspires me personally because of his passion to his particular domain in the future our guest this week is the biohacker and synthetic biology leader andrew hassell andrew welcome to the show great to have you on the futurists great to see you rob how have you been i am cool too right bio hacker i’m not most people don’t call me a biohacker but i am definitely a hacker at heart um if futurist wasn’t cool enough then you gotta buy a hacker in there as well well you know it really goes to one of the themes here which is that we’re not just about people who are talking about the future we’re interested in the people who are creating the future and inventing the future and making the future and that’s certainly something that andrew’s been doing for for as long as i’ve known which is more than 10 years you know when i first met you you were going around the country talking to high school students and teaching them how to do synthetic biology in their classrooms which blew my mind that was a real passion project for the time yeah it still is i think like computing synthetic biology is really an emerging uh is a field that’s led by young people you know that just are coming in with a completely different perspective or highly digital and just for open to learning and at the time you mentioned that it was important to get this information into the public domain you know where it could be used by everybody as opposed to dominated by a handful of big you know say pharma or chemical companies what’s your perspective on that today well biology is open source in the sense that all the code of biology which is written in dna is it’s an executable code but it’s completely open you can take any organism and get the code in a very straightforward way and we all run the same code so for me i just felt it was very important that that code remains as as open and transparent as possible because if it came under proprietary control i have no idea what that would mean for the you know for life on this planet you’re using the term code and kind of an analogy um i think where i think it’s important for our audience to understand and when you’re referring to code you’re not talking about the ones and zeroes of digital software that define our digital universe you’re actually talking about the software that runs our biology our humanity and the natural world in other words the um the dna code the dna code but the dna code is digital it’s just not it’s base four instead of base two so it’s written in in molecular bits uh represented by the letters a t g and c but it’s a digital code so when i say coding an organism or dna code i’m really talking about a programming language and you believe that we can program biology the same way that we program a computer uh very similar actually the the you you can think of the processors as being different uh with digital code it’s it’s an electronic processor with the with biological code it’s a cellular processor that’s actually that’s processing molecules but the concepts actually are very similar and just a level stuff for the audience here by way of introduction we should talk a little bit about your uh the things you’re doing the things you’ve accomplished and and your book uh congratulations you’ve written a book i know this has been a long time i know there it is the genesis machine yeah fabulous so the genesis machine uh written by andrew hessel and co-authored or co-written with amy webb who is also a notable futurist and probably a really fun person to write a book like that with yeah so congrats on that that’s a big deal thank you we want to talk about that do you want to talk about that process andrew how the book came about yeah so you know of course in the last couple years we’ve all been through this wonderful pandemic most of what i’d been doing was really moving a startup company i had to new york when everything got shut down in 2020 i was just uh i was just focusing on home school and home enter and home improvement uh and i got a phone call out of the blue from from uh my speaker’s agent who’s who connected me with amy and amy had a book uh deal already in place for looking at crispr gene editing technology and she come to realize no this is bigger than just gene editing it’s really about programming life so we connected and started writing the book cool tell us about the connection between crispr and synthetic biology and maybe start with the definition of the two things well crispr is a gene editing technology essentially it’s a tool it’s actually part of an ancient microbial immune system but it’s a tool that allows us to precisely cut the dna molecule in a specific place and to do manipulations there either leave a deletion or add some new code so it’s a g it’s basically a cut and paste technology for the dna molecule with synthetic biology most of that editing process is moved into computer software we move code blocks around using software tools and when we’re finished we hit print and synthesize a new dna molecule so so it just i i am a giant fan of synthetic biology because it makes genetic engineering something you can do with a laptop rather than a lab so biology’s moving from like a wet science with beakers and test tubes and people in lab jackets towards information science or computational science yes it makes it makes genetic engineering almost identical to software engineering except you’re programming a very different process with the cell obviously the the technology for being able to sequence genes has advanced in parallel with computing but um what would you say from a from a computing perspective or a scientific understanding perspective apart from your gene editing technologies like crispr what are the biggest milestones we’ve had in synthetic biology well let me just back up a little bit because you you just introduced a new term sequencing sequencing is is really a a translation process where we go from the chemical bits of information in the dna molecule and read out those chemical bits convert them into electronic bits that we can manipulate on a computer that’s that’s really fundamental because you know dna is a programming language and there’s like any language reading and writing and comprehension so reading really got an early start the human genome project and really advanced the technology and made it very accessible the the problem is when you start to try and edit and write re edit or write code with our earlier generation of tools the editing and writing process were all lab based and very manual and so the idea of recombinant dna or gene splicing technology was really like splicing film you had to work with the physical material you had to do cuts except with the dna molecule you’re actually doing cuts with enzymatic scissors and enzymatic glue and you can write anything you want kind of ransom note style but it’s really hard and it takes a lot of time and and you have to do other experiments just to confirm the edits that you made actually worked when you start moving into the electronic world of synthetic biology all of that again is digitized it’s not a computer just like we edit film and other materials today electronically and then you just print out a new dna molecule that’s perfect on the way out so it just makes it more accessible faster much more precise what are the breakthroughs with synbio well it’s everything that you’re seeing in the genetic engineering world except that now it’s done with better tools so it’s new enzymes being developed it’s new medicines most recently the mrna vaccines for covid those are built with synthetic biology but it’s also new food stuffs it’s new it’s new industrial materials uh like like silk etc so it’s a very large application space opening up because the tools are becoming easier to use let’s talk a little bit about the mnra vaccines because um that was obviously a gigantic win for humanity because the vaccine was developed in about a quarter of the time that it would typically take to develop a vaccine and we were able to scale it up very fast so that was great uh during the pandemic but what i think a lot of people don’t realize is that moderna had been working on that particular technique for nearly a decade before that and so synthetic biology has been kind of like a long dawn it’s taken quite some time for it to reach a level of maturation where these processes can be industrialized and scaled up yeah you know it’s actually in its third decade now so as a tool set so it’s one of those you know it’s like those overnight sensations that take 20 years um yeah it’s been building up a body of expertise of practitioners of tools uh you know that are really allowing this this work to be digitized so i look at it overall as digital biology and of course anything that gets digitized starts off slow but gets faster better cheaper pretty quickly um you know the mrna vaccines were it wasn’t just moderna it was biontech and others that had been working on this for years this was just an application that really had the urgency to to really push it through into our you know the marketplace in our arms very quickly but you know the real breakthrough there is that we went from manufacturing a vaccine in eggs or in in in the lab now your body becomes the manufacturing plant so to speak we’re really just putting in the program you know to make spike protein covid spike protein in your body your body manufactures it and ultimately produces the immune reaction to it which is how you get your your immunological defense that’s a really important distinction and if you don’t mind why don’t you give us a little bit more color on that because i’m guessing that quite a few people don’t really understand how the nra vaccines worked um you know i know in the past for instance it’s like a flu vaccine they’d have to develop those flu vaccines in like millions and millions of eggs chicken eggs and then and then and then extract the vaccine from that that process takes a long time because you’ve got to go through a biological cycle uh to do that so tell us about this new breakthrough with mnra yeah well um the basically the the basic tenet of biology is dna to rna to protein there are there are only three core systems in the living cell one is replication being able to duplicate dna transcription is making a working copy of that dna into a molecule that’s very similar to dna called rna and that rna is used by a machine called the ribosome to actually make proteins and this is this is standard in all living cells so what what mrna vaccines do is you write the mrna part which is like the working copy it’s like the blueprint molecule you put it into a little lipid container when you inject it into your arm it goes in that lipid container fuses with cells and delivers that mrna program into the cell and the ribosomes in your cell starts to manufacture that protein in this case the spike protein it’s so it’s really a wonderful way of quickly and temporarily programming your cells to make molecules which is really fantastic and synthetic biology is used to make that mrna program so the factory is literally the living cell inside of your body yep in a way isn’t that kind of what a vaccine what a virus does uh it doesn’t a virus kind of hijack a cell and then turn it into a factory to reproduce more more of the virus exactly you can think of a virus as as a usb stick it’s a nanoparticle like like the like the vaccines that were the mrna vaccines and it’s except it’s a natural nanoparticle and it does two things it not only delivers a program but it also delivers an entire enough of a program to make more virus so it becomes a self-manufacturing a self-replicating uh usb stick the process on this andrew i you know i think it’s very important to make this distinction because there’s been a lot of debate around the mrna i don’t make this about the code vaccine in particular but all you’re talking about here is using the natural immune system computation platform or machinery taking a message to produce this protein but it doesn’t um it doesn’t affect the the dna itself right no and not at all in fact because we’re not working with dna at all um we’re just working with the messenger rna which is the working copy kind of the blueprint it delivers that working copy the cell starts to make the protein and that working copy dis degrades and goes in the garbage essentially so it’s only a temporary uh reprogramming of the cell so apart from um like in this instance production of the spike protein to give you immunity to covert uh what are some other applications that that you could think of in terms of mrna for some of the existing maladies that humanity is afflicted with oh sure put me on the spot um no like basically basically anything that can be addressed through a biomolecule uh is is within reach of this technology if you want it to be temporary so with with a gene therapy for example you might want a permanent change because there’s a metabolic disorder but for example if you just need a if you just need a protein-based medicine for a short time it could be something like insulin mrna is a potential way of delivering that program it could be that you just want to target cancer cells with a particular protein that knocks them out so if you can build and if you can build a structure that delivers that message just to a cancer cell because half the problem with cancer is just targeting the right cells then you can deliver an mrna program to shut down that cancer cell that’s just a couple of examples very cool and in fact that’s one of the things that you’re working on personally right so with the humane genomics uh that that company is focused on on basically i don’t know how to describe this but reprogramming vaccines vaccine sorry that virus oh my goodness it’s okay viruses but basically it’s like viruses for good uh and that’s a weird concept for most people so can you tell us exactly how that would work yeah so i i got bitten by the synthetic biology bug before it was even called synthetic biology and what i realized is what i’m actually fascinated by is genome engineering i want to build genomes and and the smallest genomes to build are virus genomes they’re they’re really tiny compared to most cellular genomes and so i started looking at very early on what’s the most useful thing i can do with the virus that isn’t already being done and it turned out they make a really good potential treatment for cancer there’s a whole field of science called oncolytics which is basically developing uh cancer-fighting materials but there’s a branch of that called oncolytic virology where you where you basically piggyback on the fact that cancer cells are kind of broken and can’t defend themselves from viral infections that well and so i figured well with synthetic biology which gives me the power to build a virus very precisely because i can build you know the entire genome from scratch i could use that synthetic biology tool to make custom engineered viruses towards cancer and and that was that was just my mission for a long time and it turned into a startup called humane genomics which is uh i’m just an advisor to it now but it’s it continues to operate in new york it’s doing very well developing artificial viruses built from scratch that target cancer cells uh in humans and you know we we’re also it’s called humane because we also figure that dogs will be an ab companion dogs the dogs we have in our home are going to actually lead the way to a lot of this personalized medicine because if you’re making medicines for one person at a time you you you really want to get the process down uh you know potentially not working on on people so we start um we start working with dogs and chimps and things like that that’s that’s i think dogs are actually the best example because they live with us we treat them like our children and i my feeling was always when our when our when the dogs that in our homes get better cancer treatments than we can get at the hospital then that’ll that’ll be kind of the the seed change in in the pharma industry around cancer now definitely i think we need to talk about the ethics of this in the second part of the show but um no so uh crispr and talon and these sort of gene editing technologies have obviously made significant leaps in in recent times um but you know um in terms of the computing platforms and things that that you’re using how are they converging with uh you know gene editing in in particular well gene editing tools like crispr also rely on the same synthetic biology tools to manufacture them and to program them so so it’s all really one large digital tool set that’s building um the the important thing about crispr technologies is if we need to make a change in a larger genome that we can’t synthesize from scratch or it’s just not feasible to synthesize from scratch crispr allows us to make a precise edit so it’s great for doing many genetic therapies today that that need a genetic treatment that um but it just isn’t feasible to go and either write a whole virus or to go and reprogram the entire genome so it’s a really powerful tool that’s making it into the clinic but again i think synthetic genomics just being able to write genomes from scratch is going to give crispr a real run for the money particularly in the research lab and is that the sort of main mechanism you see moving forward for actual gene editing or gene therapy because it’s it’s you know the the thing that we seem to be talking about with crispr right now is whether you know we can reliably do this at scale to to make those permanent changes you talked about earlier well the main problem with crispr has been the concern of off-target effects because you’re essentially editing a molecule in your in as many cells as you want to affect that change and sometimes these molecular editing systems will go and target the wrong piece of dna in the cell and if you target the wrong piece of dna then you have the potential you you might be trying to cure cancer but you might actually be generating a cancer or another genetic error so that’s the main concern but a lot of the work that they’ve been doing today has been making these off-target effects less and less likely to happen through through engineering but ultimately i just love the idea of having the precise editing control that we get with digital tools i really love your analogy of like the video editing like splicing the tape together and now we can do that digitally it’s a great analogy because obviously our accuracy and the ability for us to make convincing edits to david videos in improved dramatically with computing um advances and that’s a great analogy to think about in terms of the accuracy of of gene therapy all then we have to worry about is the systemic implications like what does flipping this gene or creating this protein do in terms of the you know the the overall system which we we definitely want to get into uh andrew uh let me let me just take us to break quickly here after the break um let’s continue the conversation you’re listening to the futurist with brett king and robert turcheck we’re interviewing andrew hessell um and we’ll be right back after this break
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welcome back to the futurists i’m brett king we are talking to andrew hassell um the author of along with amy webb the genesis machine our quest to rewrite life in the age of synthetic biology so one of the the subjects andrew you tackle in the book is you know how do not know how to engineer um these uh living organisms um you know which we’re talking about as synthetic biology but um you know who who should be in charge of this and what should be the rule set and um you know what are the risks uh to this uh you know just even enhancing human capabilities um and and things like this that are potential outcomes you know the the ethical questions about humanity diverging either biologically or technologically from what a base human is um you know how do you how do you see us tackling that as a society um more broadly well i i think it’s going to take a lot more engagement than we have today with a broader group of individuals this is really a technology that promises to touch every one of our lives because it’s life technology so i think a part of it is the uh just a recognition that the existing rules and regulatory systems that we put in place for the chemical pharma industry and then the bio pharma industry and just bio agricultural systems i think these all need to be revisited because this is completely different it’s like we’re going from mainframe computers to you know to the personal computer because this is really about making the technologies much more accessible so this is going to this is going to need a a re-imagining of all the architectures to really allow it to run free and then you know we we as for the ethics i’m not a trained emphasis what i love about ethics is it brings people to the table to discuss what they think is right and wrong in general i think that we most people try and do good things with technology but that’s not universal there’s if there is a way to do something if there’s a way to do something it’s going to happen good and bad so i think that in general most people try to do the right thing but we need systems in place that can really find those those uh those folks those groups those sometimes nation states that are doing things that that we consider just wrong um and these need to be operating 24 7 365. so to me the next generation of biosecurity and even needs to look a lot more like the cyber security systems we put in places society digitized antibiotic virus software that we’re running now now where we’re stacking yeah i i think it’s an important point you make the analogy and you to computer programming computer science uh we’re engineering biology in a way that’s analogous and one of the things you pointed out is that there’s we’re now able to to replicate that software engineering cycle um by which i mean we can we can design build and test um and i want you to talk a little bit about that because i think some of the people listening might have this scary idea in mind of like oh somebody developed something in a lab and then it runs a muck and it gets loose and you know that that kind of sci-fi horror story that we’ve heard so many times but this test cycle is important for people to understand that that is possible you know in other words you’re not going to just freely release some kind of bio creature into the wild no in fact getting this biotech in general is one of the most highly regulated industries in the world and trying to get anything out into the wild at least as a company is uh is extremely difficult where where there might be a growing concern though is as these tools become more accessible that people that aren’t necessarily companies and bound by the conventions and and requirements of a corporate structure might just start hacking the systems and doing things that just because you know they’re being creative i have become actually personally quite um supportive of the idea of really creating a large buffer space between the natural world of all organisms plants animals microbes and the world that we can potentially engineer with synthetic biology most of the things that we build in in the lab stay in controlled environments bioreactors again a lab is a controlled environment but the i’m i i would if anything like to see that get hardened in the future so that synthetic biology can really run free and be creative and explore in a safe sandbox and we have and we increase the recognition that we need to uh protect and preserve the the natural world and the organisms there because for for for too long we’ve just we’ve just treated the natural world as as a human domain we think nothing of just plowing down a rain forest and and putting up you know palm oil plantations we so i think it’s it’s it’s two sides there we need we need to let the biology run free and keep it very open and transparent and share that information and at the same time we have to have greater respect for the natural world and and really think about when those two systems intersect you know one one area i i’m sort of trying to think about in respect to this from a computing platform is um is how we model the human system in terms of all of its complexities it wasn’t that long ago that we used to talk about all of these uh you know um genes that were junk junk dna right and now we’re finding out well it’s not junk dna there’s there’s functions in there when is it that you see that we will be able to accurately sort of model the way the human operating system works and then be able to make you know um like understand systemically how that works and be more precise in understanding how tweaking one gene or producing one protein will affect the system the short version is we have a lot more work to do um because we still you know like many people have used uh geospatial systems like google earth which is you know really modeling one ball in space and and we keep layering on more and more information to make it incredibly useful like gps we don’t have that even for a single cell today and then there are groups doing whole cell modeling but you know we are made of 50 trillion cells so without having a whole cell model even for a simple cell it’s really limiting our ability to do modeling on more complex systems like humans we certainly have models of some of our of our immune system and our circulatory system and other systems but they are by no means complete because we’re not down to first principles so let’s just say it’s early days in bioengineering but we’re you know anything that’s digital starts to come together faster better cheaper yeah a lot of quite a lot of this conversation so far has been about the application in the human body and speculating about that but as you point out that might take some time and there’s certainly tons of regulatory reasons why that process will go slow and that’s probably advisable but quite a lot of the activity in synthetic biology has been on non-human organisms microorganisms things that we understand very very well because we can actually map the entire genome they’re smaller they’re easier to work with they replicate faster and so forth so these are non-human uses of synthetic biology and actually these non-human uses cover an awful lot of industry and i think that’s important for us to zoom out a little bit at this point you know when we talk about healthcare healthcare represents about 20 of the us economy so it’s big it’s a really really big part of the u.s economy and of course there are many applications inside of healthcare for improving human health and maybe synthetic biology will start to take a piece of that 20 percent but let’s bear in mind that many other industries are derived from natural resources for instance most of our energy is derived from natural processes or from biology from the past and so there’s a whole biological element to energy the same is true with food of course food in all agriculture but also things like apparel we don’t really tend to think about the fact that you know the clothes that we wear and the shoes and our feet there are also tend to be derived from biology and so there’s a lot of other applications and these industries comprise together more than a third of the entire economy and so you can start to see the vast dimensions uh of for the application of synthetic biology in manufacturing and in particular manufacturing substitutes and those substitutes can be carbon friendly uh they can be located closer to the source or to the place where it’s going to be distributed so they have a smaller carbon footprint sometimes they make things that are biodegradable in ways so they can be like a substitute for plastic or something that we don’t want to create more of tell me a little bit more andrew in your perspective about how that works how do you harness something like an algae or some other microorganism to produce like actually to manufacture these synthetic products well i think that you just gave a great overview rubber on really some of the potential for this because yay no but it but it’s true like biology is what creates us but it’s what sustains us um and so just but when you really break it down what we’re really talking about here is using cells to make the uh the stuff that we need for humanity to thrive and and the thing that i love about synthetic biology particularly as we start going into full genome engineering is now we have the tools to be able to program those cells with precision so one of the first cells to be to be made from scratch with synthetic biology well the first cell was done in 2010 by by a scientist by the name of craig venter but he used a cell called mycoplasma which is very has a very small genome but isn’t really widely known jump ahead about a decade and and a researcher by the name of of jason chin synthesized the e coli bacterium from scratch it has a genome size of about 4 million bits but e coli is is one of the most studied organisms on the planet and it’s a really incredible manufacturer of different proteins plus it has a generation time of 15 to 20 minutes so it’s very easy to grow you know lots and lots of cells because it reproduces it makes bunnies look slow you know so anyway the so but having the ability there to reprogram the cell even if it’s a simple cell gives us the ability to start manufacturing new materials new proteins uh etc etc with high precision and to tune and optimize them for different purposes the one thing about e coli though is it’s is it requires sugars to grow and you know if you move to a more complex cell like an algae it’s it can use sunlight as the energy source for manufacturing and that’s and and again it can make thousands of different compounds as well so learning to reprogram algae can radically change the way we start manufacturing many different things and it’s all powered by sunlight directly or another example if you just one moment is yeast yeast is already widely used it’s been used harnessed by humans for 10 000 years and and an international team of scientists has been working to synthesize and boot up the yeast genome and they’re this close well that’s impressive what will happen if yeast is uh synthesized and we can reprogram it what can we do with that yeast is yeast uh as a cell is a eukaryote which means it’s closer to our you and me than it is to bacteria um so it’s about a billion years more evolved than than the e coli bacterium um and it’s just an incredible manufacturing source now we use it today you know for you know for for right for for bread making beer you know but but yeah for bread and beer are the common applications but in industrial uses it produces enzymes it produces different proteins it produces just a vast array of compounds and as we can build and tune the yeast genome with precision now we can direct you know most of its energy into producing the the the compounds that we want so we’re going to see yeast become uh pretty much a global manufacturing platform for for biomaterials it’s important for people listening to understand that this is also about optimizing process and generating less waste and in some cases recycling waste there’s some speculation for instance that city waste is going to become more valuable because it’ll start to be used as a raw material that could be kind of composted by these microorganisms i think the other element of this is interesting is we have some tools to you know particularly in the current crisis with ukraine thinking about how we get off dependency on oil and you know that’s not just in terms of you know gas or petroleum to put in your vehicle but more importantly things like plastic production and things like that this is really where synthetic biology would seem to have huge application in helping us with sustainability as well what are your thoughts on that andrew i think biology is the only provable sustainable technology it literally self-assembles from from common elements carbon hydrogen nitrogen etc um and it can be broken down anything made by biology can be broken down by biology which is very important it’s only the the some of the compounds and polymers that we’ve created chemically that the microbes haven’t evolved to break down that are causing us problems but there’s a great example of enzymes that were isolated from landfills that could break down plastic bottles that have now been taken into the lab studied and and tuned and optimized and now you can digest a plastic bottle in a matter of days which is absolutely incredible so so we we i i believe that these technologies are absolutely going to help humanity thrive and be sustainable but they come with some risks because as biology becomes easier to program you get what you select for you get what you train your ai systems for and so for anything good that we imagine in new medicine there’s also the potential for something nefarious which is why the entire architecture needs to be hardened in the same way that we had to harden computer networks this would appear to you know lend something that we’ve been talking about increasingly when we have these conversations is global regulation this is not really something you could regulate on a on a national basis because you can have a bad actor in another country that could uh you know circumvent that so is there a sort of a growing global regulatory movement around bioethics or around the synthetic biology not yet like right now um part of part of what i’ve been communicating is biosecurity needs to be put under national defense as a start and not just under health or agricultural regulation it needs to be part of of national defense and and i think there’s a good reason for that you know we were essentially just invaded by by a virus globally um so a national defense is a start uh which turns into better public health and just being able to defend ourselves against infectious disease but we truly need an international body to come together on this because we all run the same operating system and microbes really don’t care about human structures like borders or you know nations etc etc so they just go where people go with respect to defense you know the u.s defense department has been on this for almost a decade uh the our darpa defense advanced research projects agency introduced an office of biology as technology nearly a decade ago uh for this very reason you know and arpa’s mission is to look at everything as a potential threat or as a potential way to protect people uh protect soldiers in particular but then broadly they disseminate that information into the into the mainstream uh so i think that that’s understood but maybe not as widely as as we might hope um one of the things i’m trying to drive at here though is that there’s also for every downside effect there’s also tremendous potential for upside effects you know if you consider the last century uh one of the big themes of the 20th century was finding synthetic um produced materials to replace uh organic materials things that were naturally produced you know for example silk was was replaced by synthetic fabrics like nylon um in the 1920s 1940s in that era and typically those synthetics are derived from petroleum but andrew is the point you just made like humans are able to synthesize this stuff but we don’t do it in a way that nature can degrade quite easily and so we end up with a lot of garbage laying around we’re starting to accumulate huge amounts of plastic so i’m excited about the idea that companies like genomatica can take sugar and start to generate their own version of nylon or some substitutes substitute ingredients for nylon that are biodegradable as well and there’s also something happening like that with other kinds of polymers like biosynthetic synthesized chitin which is another element that can be used to replace plastics because we’re starting to accumulate a lot of plastic in you know in landfill but also in the ocean what’s the prospect for you know some sort of um synthetic organism that can devour ocean-going plastic is that is that a pipe dream or is that a possibility i i i think because it’s in the ocean which is uh a natural environment i don’t think people would be generally supportive of filling it with engineered organisms you might be able to build a processing plant but i think really part of what we have to do is just stop polluting um so a big a big part of that is just learning how to think in in completely new ways around sustainability and and it’s it’s essentially mass accounting the the reason why a plastic bottle is used um is because it’s just so cheap because we don’t do full ownership of of the process you know in a closed loop so what what i find really inspiring today is that you know we’ve got a new space race going um because we’re finally getting the cheap delivery to orbit by more and more companies which is which means that you have to start thinking in closed systems because space is a space station for example is truly a closed system you have to account for everything going in and out so i think that the opening up of space is really going to drive the development of new sustainability technologies that we can apply on earth that can really resolve a lot of the waste issues that we have today if we can start to deploy them at scale amazing well this has been a fun conversation and we could go on all day long we didn’t really get into transgenics i wanted to get into that but next time andrew we’ll have to have you back for that there’s a lot more to say andrew hussell you’re a wealth of information so much interesting stuff to share with us about synthetic biology and your new book the genesis machine which we’ve both read and have enjoyed and we recommend to our audience andrew folks listening to this want to find out more what’s the best place for them to reach out to you or to read about your work well you know the first by the book it really contains a lot of information and ideas and scenarios and it’s it’s a book about science but it’s it’s not for the scientist it’s really meant so that anyone can pick it up and read it and yeah that’s one of the advantages of working with amy webb she writes in a way that makes it easy to understand accessible it’s the easy pathway to mastering the information biology and the next step after that is amy webb runs something called the future today institute where she puts out future trend reports she just uh just launched this the 2022 reports at south by southwest just a few days ago if you go to her website all of those reports are open source and freely available so and she’s got a synthetic biology report that’s amazing if you’re younger and you’re interested in doing this as as as a profession i point people to igem the international genetically engineered machines organization that has really become the premiere point for for young entrepreneurs and students to learn about this technology and if you’re older and thinking of a career switch and you’re doing anything digital today there is a place for you in the emerging synthetic biology industry which is growing incredibly fast and yet it’s it’s still early days um i this has the potential to grow to be an industry that grows faster than even the computing industry because for the computing industry to advance you know moore’s law being the famous you know pace of the of the computing industry you have to go and build new technologies you have to build new fabs you have to design new chips with cells they’re just waiting for us to write new programs so it really has the potential to advance at the speed of software so so keep an eye on that’s amazing you know yeah so it it we we don’t know the limits of the cell because it’s a universal machine but it will be our ability to write genetic software that ultimately dictates the pace of creation so i think we’re on the cusp of a cambrian explosion of organisms this century that is like unprecedented amazing now you know you think of all the applications uh you know de-extinction and all of those things it just it blows my mind andrew hassell thank you for joining us on the futurists if you’re listening uh to the show uh be aware we are a new podcast uh you know we’re a few episodes in now but please make sure to tell your friends about the podcast give us a five star rating on itunes that’s how people can find out about the podcast as well and mention us on social media we’d really appreciate that but we will be back with you next week and we will see you in the future well that’s it for the futurists this week if you like the show we sure hope you did please subscribe and share it with people in your community and don’t forget to leave us a 5 star review that really helps other people find the show and you can ping us anytime on instagram and twitter at futurist podcast for the folks that you’d like to see on the show 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