Executives often ask, “When, exactly, will synthetic biology disrupt our business and our industry?” The answer: “when” is inconsequential. Companies need to identify inflection points before they happen, and they should position themselves accordingly.
Synthetic biology will eventually intersect with every industry sector and, therefore, every business. The advancements will change industrial materials, coatings, recycling, packaging, food, beverage, beauty, pharmaceuticals, health care, energy, transportation, and the supply chain.
Synthetic biology will also change design (what and how we create), work (fewer sick days for employees), law (what and who we protect), news and entertainment (the kinds of stories we tell), education (what we teach), and religion (what we believe). Eventually, entire value chains will be transformed.
The Genesis Machine
I am a fan of Amy Webb. Loved “The big nine”. A scary book about AI. Compulsory reading if you want to think about how technology will and is impacting our lives. “The Genesis Machine: Our Quest to Rewrite Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology” is about synthetic or programmable biology. To gain access to cells in order to write new—and possibly better—biological code. Life is becoming programmable, and synthetic biology makes a bold promise to improve human existence. Synthetic biology intersects with computer science and, notably, artificial intelligence, using machine learning and uncovering meaningful patterns in big data sets.
Coding with DNA
Engineers are designing new computer systems for biology, and startups are selling printers capable of turning computer code into living organisms. Network architects are using DNA as hard drives. Soon, life will no longer be a game of chance but the result of design, selection, and choice. Technology will allow us not just to read and edit DNA code but to write it. We will soon be able to write any virus genome from scratch. Imagine a synthetic biology app store where you could download and add new capabilities into any cell, microbe, plant, or animal.
An explosion of innovation
We will someday have a technological foundation to cure any genetic disease in humankind. In the process, we will spark a Cambrian explosion of engineered plants and animals for uses that are hard to conceive of today but will meet the global challenges we face in feeding, clothing, housing, and caring for billions of humans. Synthetic biology is connected to adjacent areas in tech, including artificial intelligence, telecommunications, blockchain, consumer electronics, social media, robotics, and algorithmic surveillance, which are all playing increasingly important roles in the bioeconomy.
It raises lots of questions. The ability to edit and write life has profound societal impacts.
- What about genetic privacy?
- Who will “own” living organisms?
- How do you regulate synthetic biology (IP, risk, liability, etc.)
- How to contain a synthetic organism in a lab?
- Should you edit your future children?
- Is the commercialisation of engineered living systems a good idea?
Our cells are supercomputers
Our cells are amazing. In healthy people, our cells are analogous to a futuristic, automated, computerised factory operating at the highest levels of efficiency. Imagine networks of advanced robots all working together: 3D printers that manufacture everything needed on-demand at any quantity; a supply chain and logistics system optimised for maximum output; and an operating system with billions of lines of code that are all executed continuously. Read “The biology of belief”
Your cells are cellular factories
Your body is simply a mobile giga complex housing for nearly forty trillion futuristic cellular factories, all working together to keep you alive. Each one of those cellular factories has three main components: a set of instructions, a communications system to transmit those instructions, and a production line that makes the designated product. Cells are the computers that computers if they could dream, would dream of becoming: computers that can self-manufactured, self-repair, and run on almost any energy source. Cells contain full copies of the genome, and each cell has the ability to make decisions about its future. The human genome contains at least 6.4 billion letters of genetic code, which is roughly the number of letters found in four thousand copies of Moby Dick.
All life is programmable
If we agree that cells are like wet, biological computers executing commands to produce products and services, then it can be helpful to think of DNA’s programming language as digital, except not binary. Imagine if life wasn’t all that mysterious after all, but simply an issue of mechanics—a challenging engineering project waiting to be investigated. Humans as just squishy machines. Could cells be programmed like computers? Within the next decade, synthetic biology will put the power to program the ultimate supercomputer—cells—in human hands. In the future, all life will be programmable. Those with the right knowledge and capability will be in possession of unfathomable power.
Playing LEGO with biology
Think, for a moment, about the magic that this approach would eventually create. In time, there would be dazzling outcomes: a wetware store for standard biological parts and special printers to synthesise molecules. DNA could be reimagined as rewritable data storage and cells as microscopic production facilities. Playing lego (biobricks) with biology. The low code version of biology.
Today, scientists are imagining, designing, and manufacturing the future of life in hundreds of laboratories and startups. Such foundries are being helped along by one unexpected but recognisable name: Microsoft. In 2019, Microsoft launched a platform called Station B with the idea of creating end-to-end interconnected applications and services for synthetic biology. Microsoft is also exploring a new, unusual use for DNA involving information storage. DNA is already nature’s hard drive. In 2019, the researchers prototyped the first fully automated read-write DNA storage system, using it to first write and then read the word “Hello” in just five bytes of data.
A May 2020 McKinsey study analysed the impact on the global economy of four hundred existing synthetic-biology-related innovations in the pipeline today and determined that those advances could yield an average of $4 trillion between now and 2040—each year. As with the phone and the internet, the value synthetic biology will deliver to society will extend far beyond what we can conceive of today.
Today, there is a Moore’s Law equivalent in synthetic biology, which has come to be known as the Carlson Curves. In just a few decades, it could unlock the code of every plant, animal, microbe, and virus with which we share our world.
Scenarios are an effective strategic tool used by executives and their teams to confront deep uncertainty. They are opportunities to rehearse the future. But anyone can use scenarios to explore future outcomes. They also unlock something invaluable: the ability to re-perceive reality. Here are some ideas:
- De-extinction of species
- Creating a newer Neanderthal by crossing Homo sapiens with Homo Neanderthalensis could result in a heartier species of people who could better withstand the modern challenges of climate change and extreme weather events and would be more likely to survive a necessary migration to a new and vastly different environment.
- Marvel’s X-Men series becoming a reality.
- Curing ageing.
- Eradicating disease.
- Customised, lab-grown human tissue.
- Upgrading agriculture: Genetic editing, custom microbes, and precision agricultural systems that make use of artificial intelligence and robotics are allowing us to explore alternative means of production—such as vertical farms, in which crops are grown in stacked layers inside of enormous warehouses.
- Biological printers, or digital-to-biological converters. With a generator and satellite internet connection, scientists could theoretically build DNA in the middle of the Brazilian rainforest. Or on a battlefield.
- In the future, organisms and medicines can be faxed around the planet. Why not send them to other planets? With a biofoundry on Mars or the moon, sending crucial supplies, plants, and animals would be as easy as sending an email.
- Ingestibles, which are tiny, pill-sized computers outfitted with sensors, cameras, and transmitters, can collect data from inside your body and beam it out to an AI-powered system for analysis.
- Consider what synthetic biology could do for the fashion industry.
- New bio-packaging could be designed to withstand heat or cold, revolutionising the logistically complex, energy-intensive, environmentally damaging cold chain we use today to transport perishables.
- We’ve figured out how to fatten up solar-fed bacteria. Why not develop fields of artificial, leafy bio-machine plants to feed on sugar and create energy as a byproduct?
- Carbon dioxide is the undisputed culprit behind climate change. What if we could suck it out of the air? Trees do that naturally,
- Microbes could be designed to transform industrial wastewater, agricultural runoff, and even sewage, turning it all back into clean water.
- Hummingbirds can see colours humans can’t even imagine, including ultraviolet variations. Future researchers could borrow what we know of the hummingbird genome, use AI systems to determine genetic constructs, and synthesise chimaera genomes in the lab. Then, humans could see like hummingbirds.
- Imagine a world in which shrimp are produced in a lab.
- Imagine supercharged carotenoids (which optimise eye health and immunity).
- Imagine turmeric engineered with extra curcumin.
- Imagine restaurants with their own bioreactors. The most exciting bioreactors culturing cells from more exotic creatures, including zebras, elephants, tigers, hummingbirds, bats, and snakes.
- Imagine if fruits were grown indoors, all year round, just beneath the grocery stores that sell them. By 2030, you could be shopping at a grocery store full of fresh, nutritious, CRISPR-edited foods. What you find here will be grown nearby: underneath the store itself, perhaps, or in an adjacent vertical farm. Or even in a meat laboratory in your town.
- Imagine a future in which healthy living was about upgrades and optimisation rather than restriction.
- Imagine the world’s most delicate, delicious bluefin tuna sushi sourced not from the waters near Japan but from a bioreactor in Hastings, Nebraska.
- Imagine a world in which dieting was unnecessary because a biometric test would reveal your body’s metabolic levels, food sensitivities, and other data, so you’d know which foods to eat, what to drink, and when.
- Imagine an injection that could restore hearing to almost original levels in just a few weeks.
- Imagine saltwater-resistant rice.
- Imagine halophytic algae-based processors.
- Imagine programmable Matter (maker of materials that can shape-shift to respond to the environment or user input).
- Imagine a targeted hybrid cyber-biological adversarial attack.
- Imagine a football covered in a biofilm that could reveal, in real-time, the ball’s spin rate and velocity, along with the quarterback’s precise hand placement.
- Imagine a kit that included freeze-dried molecules that were engineered for later insertion into a cell. The molecule would remain dormant until you needed to use it, like the dried beans and mushrooms you might use to make soup.
- Imagine the day when biological coatings ensured that surfaces would quickly heal themselves, regardless of their damage.
- What if your body is hackable? What if we decide that some upgrades to our basic biology should be allowed?
Synthetic biology technologies will be harnessed to eradicate life-threatening diseases and to develop personalised medicines for individual people and their specific genetic circumstances. Most importantly, we will engineer healthier people.
My favourite scenario; Elon Musk
Imagine Musk announced an audacious contest called the Colony Prize. He’d award $1 billion to any team that could build and operate an underground, airtight colony of one hundred people for two years. In other words, the ultimate Mars simulation. The goal is to create habitable places not just to live but live well. Build the colony where you and your family can thrive, with the right kind of people, and consider how it might continue to grow to become fully self-sustaining.
To meet milestones, colonies had to engineer microbes, including bacteria, that enabled crops to fertilise themselves. Colony teams quickly realised the best strategy was cooperation since there was no cap to the number of winners. Once they started sharing what they’d learned, the engineering of key colony systems evolved incredibly quickly. The colonies excelled at bioengineering. Their life science canisters were equipped with the best biofabs, including sequencers and synthesisers.
The predicted result; in addition to producing net surpluses of food, water, and other necessities, many colonies had reached economic escape velocity: the research, systems, and products they created were earning them a lot of money on the surface.
It is already here
The foundation for these alternate realities already exists. Some of these innovations are already moving from the fringe to the mainstream as the bioeconomy’s capabilities come into focus. Synthetic biology will transform three key areas of life: medicine, the global supply of food, and the environment.
- Researchers at Stanford University are experimenting with self-assembling tissue, which they dubbed “assembloids.”
- Miniature snippets of the nervous system are being used to create miniature blobs of brain tissue.
- We are using “body on a chip,” which will include different combinations of organoids.
- Researchers developed a working prototype of a nerve-cell circuit that represents the cerebral cortex, spinal cord, and skeletal muscle. When they stimulated the cortex cells, the message was transmitted all the way to the muscle, which twitched in the lab dish.
- Research is underway elsewhere that would transplant bits of human brain organoids into rats.
- Researchers at MIT have developed an ingestible-based bacterial-electronic system to monitor gut health.
- An emerging technology called in vitro gametogenesis, or IVG, will soon allow same-sex couples to create a baby using their own genetic material without requiring donor eggs or sperm.
- CRISPR has increased the level of omega-3s in plants
- A researcher at Harvard University has pioneered the use of genetic barcodes that can be affixed to food products before they enter the supply chain, making them traceable when problems arise.
- Scientists at Columbia University are developing plastic trees that passively soak up carbon dioxide from the air and store it on a honeycomb-shaped “leaf” made of sodium carbonate.
- DARPA is supporting the development of even smaller devices that can manufacture drugs and therapies in the field in order to protect troops against novel biological threats.
The developmental track of synthetic biology parallels what we’ve seen in AI. Some of the same players who built our modern AI economy are now deeply involved in building the bioeconomy:
- Bill Gates has advocated for investment in synthetic biology to combat global hunger and climate change.
- Jeff Bezos is backing several synthetic biology companies, and his space company, Blue Origin, would benefit from such tools and technologies,
- Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt invested $150 million in the Broad Institute to hasten the convergence of AI and biology.
- China has made it abundantly clear that it plans to achieve international supremacy in both synthetic biology and artificial intelligence. China is now among the world’s leaders in patents and academic publications. By 2050, it could also be one of the largest holders of patents and intellectual property and also the first country where all new babies are sequenced at birth.
Synthetic biology will influence our societies, economies, national security, and geopolitical alliances in almost inconceivable ways. The book identifies a number of risks:
- The “dual-use dilemma,” in which scientific and technological research is intended for good but can also, either intentionally or accidentally, be used for harm.
- Biology is unpredictable. A lab accident, or a containment breach, could result in today’s harmless laboratory bacterium becoming tomorrow’s ecological catastrophe.
- Private DNA is a security risk. With synthetic biology, DNA sequencing could also be used to create a personalised bioweapon. Biological weapons don’t need to result in widespread death or a pandemic to be effective. A disgruntled ex-employee could hold the DNA of a company’s board of directors for ransom. What if Big Tech companies—Google, Apple, Amazon—mapped your genetic data to all the other data they collect about you? In the future, our most worrying data security breaches could involve DNA.
- Regulation is woefully behind.
- The next digital divide will be genetic. The genetic divide will become more evident as children age, positioning tech-enhanced kids as superior to their “naturally” conceived schoolmates.
- Synthetic biology will lead to new geopolitical conflicts. Will China decide to edit or enhance its population? In time, genetic enhancement will become acceptable. This development, in turn, would force a new cyber-biological arms race.
- Super-mice and monkey-human hybrids. There is a term for hybrid life forms: chimaeras, named after the fire-breathing monster of Greek mythology that was part lion, part goat, and part serpent. We don’t have a system to define “human” characteristics in a world where animal-human chimaera live. What if a super-predator was intentionally created by a bad actor—like a hyper-intelligent, aggressive, quadruple-muscled dog? Could a chimaera that has some level of human intelligence be used for research or organ harvesting? Inevitably, chimaera research would cross over to life enhancement and supersede work around life preservation. Humans with chimaera elements would likely need reclassification, and society would also categorise them differently.
For synthetic biology to achieve its greatest potential while minimising dangerous risks, we need to imagine ourselves in such an unfamiliar future, one in which our regulatory approaches, geopolitical agreements, and investment strategies look different than they do today.
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