Bio & Life Sciences Techonomy Events

Andrew Hessel of Singularity University on Biotech and Procreation

In this short talk from Techonomy 2011 in Tuscon, Ariz., Andrew Hessel, Co-Chair of Bioinformatics and Biotechnology at Singularity University, describes how his work engineering the genome has shifted his views on human reproduction in a very personal way.

Hessel: How many of you in the room are parents? Hands up. Wonderful. Okay, you are going to hear a lot about DIY bio tomorrow, but trust me, you are the experts. I don’t have kids. In fact, I never really thought about procreation very much. In part, that’s because I never really trusted the process of meiosis, which is what your gonads do to recombine and shuffle genetic information to produce eggs and sperm. In fact, I never really understood parenting. My parents like most—many parents, just seemed to be winging it. They hadn’t really done a lot of foresight into the whole parenting process and where people—optimizing childhood. So as I became sexually active I realized I had a problem. I went to my doctor and I said, “Fix me.” And he said, “Andrew, we don’t do that to people who are 18 years old and haven’t got kids.” And it’s like,  Why? This is the only effective form of male birth control. How do I fix this?

Well it turns out you fix it by having a lot of conversations with doctors. It took about six years for me, but I got my vasectomy. The whole experience really brought me into the life science world. I found myself doing things like working on the human genome project, getting all of this data and understanding the data and comprehending it—so reading and comprehension. And now it’s shifted in the last few years to something called synthetic biology, which is the writing of genetic data. Computer assisted genetic design. The engineering of  life. Now we can go from an idea to printing DNA and ultimately booting DNA. Bits to atoms to biology.

This is one of the most powerful technologies in the world in my opinion. It’s really going to open the floodgates and make the engineering of life like software engineering. We’re seeing very young people come into the field and it’s growing rapidly. We’ve made things like viruses. We are making vaccines. We are starting to engineer single cells easier and easier, and it’s on an exponential. It’s growing fast. It will grow faster than a lot of the computer technologies. What happens when we can make a vaccine as easily as we can make a Tweet? What happens when we start to engineer every plant and animal? I know this: it’s growing so fast that soon we are going to make synthetic genomes. Human genomes. And edit them. We are going to end up with other IVF technologies and reproductive technologies, probably booting one of these in the next few decades. That will make cloning look organic, and certainly the way we have babies today, quaint. So the shift for me—the 180-degree shift in my thinking has been: it’s time to procreate. In fact, to be a pro-creator of life.  And to be the best parent I can be.  Thank you.

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