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Reflections from Ross: Why “Genetically Modified Everything” is so important to what we do at Techonomy

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Andrew Hessel of Autodesk moderates a conversation with Ellen Jorgensen of Genspace and Ryan Phelan of Revive and Restore at Techonomy Bio 2014.

The intersection of tech, bio and life sciences has long been an area of great interest for me. In fact, had I followed a different path, I would have gone to Imperial College London to study biotech. But as it happens my formal education in anything scientific stopped at biology and chemistry A-level in the UK. Instead of going to Imperial, I chose to come to the US and get a liberal arts degree…one door closes, another opens I suppose.

Biotech didn’t seem like a good life choice back in the early 90’s. So much for that decision. Barely a day seems to go by when I don’t read about some new, exciting bio or life science startup, fund or incubator. According to one report, the global biotech market is estimated to have a value of $604.40 billion by 2020.

Techonomy gave me another opportunity to continue studying (or at least observing!) bio, tech and life sciences. At Techonomy 2011 I put together a session called Democratizing DNA and the Biopunk Revolution – this was my introduction to the amazing world of DIY bio-hackers and synthetic biology. It was something of an eye opener. It was very clear that a lot of innovative and exciting things were being explored in the world of DIY-bio, outside the confines of a corporate or academic lab that had huge potential impact on the world. The world of DIY-bio brought some of the tools and principles from other engineering domains to genetics and biology. As DIYBio.org founder, Mac Cowell told us at that conference, he and his peers aimed to “bring those techniques into genetics and biology to make it easier to build biological systems, to construct biological systems that do something useful.”

Since then, there has always been a bio/life science component to our programs. We’ve also done two one-day Techonomy Bio programs. We’ve looked at everything from de-extinction to glowing pigs, bio-origami to bio-architecture, with conversations on programmable life, genetics, ethics, bio-data, CRISPR, privacy concerns and the augmentation of humans.

This year at TE16 we’re continuing this exploration into the industries being changed by life science, the technologies, the benefits and yes, the controversies.

One session, Genetically Modified Everything, will look at how genomics is allowing us to modify everything…our plants, our animals, ourselves. Will hunger become a thing of the past? Will gene editing eradicate rare disease? Will genetically modified mosquitoes save us from Zika (and any host of other mosquito borne diseases?) What about the role it plays in conservation? Revive & Restore (co-founded by Stewart Brand and Ryan Phelan, both past Techonomy speakers) is an organization goes to show what’s possible. It aims, through advances in genomic technology, to not only conserve biodiversity, but possibly bring extinct species back to life.

Another session, Life Science on the Scale of Industry, will look at how some of these synbio, genomic and neuroscience technologies and tools make the leap from lab to product and commercialization.

From agriculture to energy, healthcare to manufacturing, the positive benefits of these advances are huge. They impact not just our health, but that of the planet and all the interconnected ecosystems circling our world. As tech further enables our discovery and exploration of what is possible in the sciences, the line between the two gets blurred. As scientists and technologists move closer together the pace of discovery and application increases, with immense economic and societal implications.

And a related, but slightly tangential topic: Someone really needs to write a treatment for a CRISPR mini series. It’s got the makings of a blockbuster. A revolutionary technology, “disagreement” over ownership and discovery. There’s conflict, patent battles, world famous institutes pitted against each other, protagonists, antagonists, a possible Nobel prize and billions of dollars in the balance. If you’re not familiar with this story, here are a couple of links, Heroes of CRISPR” Disputed and Lies, damn lies, and CRISPR: the legal battle escalates.

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