On The Digital Life podcast this week, we chat about the Human Genome Project Write. Synthetic biologists are building the engineering blueprint for life: a human cell that contains all the DNA it needs to produce more human cells. Such a blueprint could be a significant step towards major medical breakthroughs, including wiping out genetic diseases.
Synthetic biologists build DNA using specialized bio-informatics design software to write the code. In the lab, this DNA code is then chemically synthesized. The software tools for this process, however, are still at their formative stages, and lack the necessary abstraction layer. Synthetic biologists must still work at the most basic level of DNA code—the A,C,G, and Ts—unlike, say computer coders who usually stay several layers above the 0s and 1s.
Some of the other challenges this project will face include creating a legal framework and policy to govern the technology, establishing rules around intellectual property, and even coming to a shared understanding of ethical boundaries and prohibitions across the genomic research community. Join us as we discuss.
The Human Operating System Gets an Overhaul
Jon: Welcome to episode 244 of The Digital Life, a show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host Jon Follett and with me is founder and cohost Dirk Knemeyer.
Dirk: Greetings listeners.
Jon: For our podcast this week, we’re going to dig into one of my favorite topics and emerging technologies, which is synthetic biology.
Jon: In particular, we’re going to look at what might be sort the premier, the most audacious synthetic biology project. It’s called the Human Genome Project-Write.
Dirk: I’ve heard of the Human Genome Project.
Jon: Yeah. The Human Genome Project of course wrapped up I guess close to a decade ago now and was the first instantiation of what really is becoming the genomics revolution. That was the first step, the foot in the door so to speak sequencing the human genome. That costs $3 billion and I think it was President Bill Clinton at the time was very proud of this achievement of this public and private competition that resulted in the human genome being sequenced.
Dirk: Bill Clinton, that’s generations ago plural at this point.
Jon: Yeah. It feels that way doesn’t it? That is true. In this next step, the Human Genome Project-Write essentially synthetic biologists are going to build a human cell with all of the DNA that’s required to produce more human cells. If the Human Genome Project was the read project, this is the write project.
Dirk: It’s W-R-I-T-E, not R-I-G-H-T?
Jon: Yes. Yes. Definitely. W-R-I-T-E, of course speaks to the whole field of synthetic biology, which is really focused on the creation of genomic code for a variety of purposes, whether you are engineering a particular kind of grain, let’s say, for agriculture or you’re interested in producing environmentally friendly fuel. You might do that using certain bacteria. Synthetic biology touches on a whole variety of industries and is really going to change the way that we do things as human beings, the way we manufacture things, the way we address problems. But, this project to create an entire human genome basically from scratch is really not only is it a follow on to the Human Genome Project, but it’s a … I know we use the words moonshot way too much …
Jon: … To describe scientific ambition.
Dirk: It’s a lot of moonshots in the world these days.
Jon: Yeah. Only one moon unfortunately. There are so many positive outcomes that could be the result of advancing synthetic biology. We talked about a couple of those, but additionally being able to eradicate certain diseases that have genetic underpinnings and the ability to really exist in a more friendly coexistence with our environment would be another potential outcome because we’re able to do things to manufacture things in a way that is more aligned with the way the world works. We’re not artificially ripping resources out of the ground and then releasing the toxic after post use, all the toxins back into the ecosystem.
Jon: Dirk, what are your initial thoughts on the Human Genome-Write Project, or sorry, the Human Genome Project-Write, which is also called GP Write, which we’ll use that shorthand as well.
Dirk: Sure. It falls into a similar category with things we’ve talked about the show before, particularly things around CRISPR Cas9 and gene editing. It’s technically true that gene authoring is different than gene editing, but the end applications are the same in both cases. It is taking the DNA of a living person or manufacturing or adjusting the DNA of a yet to be born person. Now, we’re sending in to question person, life. Okay. I’m not even going to go there right now. This is down that same path, and so it comes with a similar ethical consequences and questions. Namely, that in much of the First World, certainly much of the West, there’s a concern about the exercise of these technologies and advances in the context of humans and people.
While they’re used pretty aggressively in other animals, the use of them in humans and then extrapolating that into how we would function as a society of people that are created by or altered by these technologies, there are sticky questions.
Jon: Yeah. There’s certainly an array of challenges that will come along with the technologies that are being introduced both as part of this GP Write Project and then also just generally speaking genomic alteration. You touched on a couple of them of course the ethical boundaries and then in certain societies we’re going to have and many societies in the West will have prohibitions against certain kinds of genomic alteration, so …
Dirk: Probably. We don’t know for sure. Right?
Jon: Right. Of course, there’s going to be conferences and discussions about those things and probably I would hope more public discussion as well. Additionally, or from those ethical type discussions, there will need to be one of our favorite topics is policy design and legal frameworks. There are interesting legal frameworks around genomics that are just starting to take hold and you have to include all kinds of things like preventing against discrimination for instance is high on people’s list. Additionally, and for the scientific and perhaps business community, there is the question of intellectual property, which can equally get sticky because if you were creating a human genome from scratch like how do you make sure that that work remains open source?
How do you make sure that it’s benefit to humanity and there’s not some small portion that could get peeled off and patented somehow? I don’t really know the ends and outs of these kinds of legal questions for bio, but you …
Dirk: So far has fallen on the happy side. There have been some cases that have been nerve racking let’s say that have fallen the right way for the most part, which was good.
Jon: Yes. There’s certainly lots of discussion. In the CRISPR-Cas9 for instance, a lot of discussion around patents on that subject. Then finally, a concern is if we have these intellectual property frameworks and the policy frameworks and the ethics sort of at least nominally worked out, then you have the question of monitoring. How do you even know? How do you know? These are the kinds of things you can’t say oh, hey, I see in your genome that you’re super gene altered smart and now you’re going to have some additional advantage or whatever.
Dirk: It’s not like we’re going to take the person, strap them down, and reedit their genes to remove that from them. It’s once that being has been created in the form that it’s created, it’s going to go unless it has demon horns and wings, in which case it might be locked in a box somewhere.
Jon: Yeah. Or even just to raise that point that the hacker mentality, the altering your body to suit your preferences. We do it right now. It’s on slightly different level certainly on people who alter their bodies to fit their perspective, their lifestyle, their choices. Those are going to become more pronounced perhaps.
Dirk: Well, there’s certainly in accessible and egalitarian ways. You and I and anyone can go and get a tattoo at a relatively affordable cost. The cost for getting super intelligence is going to be different. At some point, if it’s bad for society to have a lot of super intelligent people, it may be very limited and segregated just to the elite, which is opening up a whole different can of worms.
Jon: Yeah. The badness of many super intelligent people that will be … Yeah. That’ll be something to be seen for sure. I wanted to dig in just a little bit into this idea of writing genetic code because I find this whole part of the technology to be very interesting, particularly because you and I both come out of a user experience design background. There really is just on a fundamental level not the greatest tools just yet for writing this kind of code. If you’re thinking about it in terms of the … Some sort of analog, it’s probably like, I don’t know, the early ’90s perhaps for your code tools and your design tools, so it’s … Well, maybe not even. Right?
Dirk: I’ll go with that. I don’t know enough about the history of code tools to have an opinion. I’m with you though, Jon. If you say it’s the case, amen, brother.
Jon: Well, I’m thinking we’re not even talking about code tools and design tools that are their software, but they’re still really working at the most fundamental level. There’s no abstraction levels for this just yet. You’re working at the level of A, C, G, and T. Right?
Jon: That’s what you’re coding in. There’s a couple of levels abstraction away from working in machine language, let’s say, for computers or in binary. It hasn’t gotten to the point yet. When digital designers say hey it’s great to get into emerging technologies, what’s the open door for me to do that? I would say that the tools that synthetic biologists have today are still early and rudimentary and there’s an awful lot of user experience expertise that could make life a lot easier for the guys who are doing this kind of work. It’s really an interesting opportunity because it’s all of the things that we’ve learned about coding on the computer side in theory can be also applied to coding on the genetic side.
That’s really what gets me excited about this field not because I’m deeply ensconced in the biology, even though it intrigues me …
Dirk: You just want to live forever, Jon.
Jon: No. I don’t know about living forever, but I’m excited by the opportunities that this technology brings.
Dirk: I know you’re friends with the fellow who runs the write project. Maybe, we could bring him on the show later in the year to talk and share more of this with our listeners.
Jon: Yeah. I’ll see what I can do to make that happen. That would be fun. I think maybe friend is a strong word, but a good acquaintance and we’re on happy terms, and so hopefully I can twist his arm a little bit and see if I can get him on the show. We’ve had a lot of interesting conversations in the past, so hopefully he’ll be willing to have one of those on our program.
Dirk: Well, get cracking, Follett.
Jon: I will. Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com, that’s just one L in the digital life, and go to that page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody, so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. You can find The Digital Life on iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher, Player FM, and Google Play. If you’d like to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter @jonfollett, that’s J-O-N F-O-L-L-E-T-T, and of course, the whole show is brought to you by GoInvo, a studio designing the future of healthcare and emerging technologies, which you can check out at goinvo.com, that’s G-O-I-N-V-O.com.
Dirk: You can follow on Twitter @dknemeyer, that’s @ D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R, and thanks so much for listening.
Jon: That’s it for episode 244 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett and we’ll see you next time.