Even for people steeped in the language and tools of modern technology—big data, parallel processing, artificial intelligence, 3D printing, and social-mobile-local whatever—comprehending how biologists and genetic engineers are leveraging those tools to revolutionize medicine, manufacturing, and industrial processes can be a challenge.
“As a reporter who’s covered both biotech and what the rest of the world calls just plain ‘tech,’ I can tell you those stories about biology can be tougher to tell,” said WIRED senior writer Marcus Wohlsen during a session, entitled “The Next Revolution Will Be Biologized,” that he moderated at Techonomy 2014 in Half Moon Bay last week.
“You don’t have the immediate payoff as much, say, as you’d get when you have an iPhone with a bigger screen. But imagine the day that the Steve Jobs of biotech comes on a stage like this and says, ‘Oh, and one more thing. We’ve cured cancer.’ Or, ‘We’ve solved the energy crisis’,” Wohlsen said. “That’s the promise that’s claimed for biology as technology for the 21st century: to solve some of the world’s most intractable problems, to seek truly transformative innovation … at a pace that could potentially leave Moore’s Law in the dust.”
Wholsen shared the stage with a panel of the sector’s thought leaders: attorney and consultant Nancy Kelley; chemical biologist Floyd Romesberg of The Scripps Research Institute; synthetic biology pioneer Drew Endy of Stanford University; and Brian Frezza, founder of “biotech lab for hire” Emerald Therapeutics.
Asked how computational advancements in biology are going to impact our lives, the first three panelists cited genomic-based targeting of genetic mutations that cause cancer, the application of chemistry and synthetic components to changing biological function, and resolving other human health problems. But Endy went further: “When you think about biology as a technology, you have it for medicine, you have it for manufacturing, you have it for basically everything our civilization depends upon.”
If the code for living matter—wetware—could be merged with hardware and software to be made programmable, Endy said, the possibilities would be endless. For instance, he said, the 16 million pounds of garden clippings that accumulate in his town of Menlo Park, Calif., annually would be “state of the art nanotechnology”—“enough matter to make the computing chips the world uses on an annual basis.”
The path to making living matter fully programmable is not yet obvious, Endy said, “but we now know it’s not impossible.” Genetic engineering already comprises between 2 and 3 percent of the domestic economy in terms of annual product revenues, he noted. Kelley pointed to research that indicates a four-fold increase in the “types of companies that are coming out of this science just in the last three years, most of them in the United States.” She predicted it would be a $12 billion-a-year industry by 2016.
If the ATCG code of DNA can indeed be leveraged as information technology to make life programmable, then Romesberg has developed a way to encode even more information. His lab developed a method for adding two more letters to the sequence—a third base pair—to offer a 3-bit instead of a 2-bit code. That means, he said, that within a given DNA sequence, you can encode more information and “use natural genetics to rewrite what cells are programmed to do … to be able to direct cells to produce things that you want them to produce, to take advantage of that evolutionary process in the lab, but to be able to do that with information that is beyond what’s encoded currently.” Expanding genomes’ potential to store and retrieve information has potential applications for everything from materials to drugs, he said.
Frezza, meanwhile, envisions the biology laboratory as a platform akin to Amazon Web services that enables a more democratic and efficient practice of biology to advance such far-out goals. His company, Emerald Therapeutics, offers remote access via a Web interface to a multimillion dollar biotech lab infrastructure. The idea is to enable smaller players “to carry out the experiments, to play out all these fantastic ideas that are floating around out there,” he said.
Kelley, who has helped scientists turn ideas into dozens of companies, pioneered the practice of life sciences real estate, led the development of the $1 billion East River Science Park in Manhattan, and founded the New York Genome Center, called the question of infrastructure critical. “The way that we work and the way that institutions interact together has to be different in order to enable a democratization of science.” Previous to the launch of The New York Genome Center, she said, its 11 founding institutions had access to 29 DNA sequencers, some of which were more than 12 years old—measly in comparison to the Broad Institute’s 300+. The real power for scientists and doctors comes from inter-institute collaborations, she said.
To be sure, the most groundbreaking biotechnology might be happening outside of large institutions. Drew Endy, whom Wohlsen called a “kind of patron saint of the idea of making biology more accessible to more people,” pointed to the growth of the International Genetically Engineered Machines competition, which began with 16 students in 2003 and saw 4,000 participants this year.
“When iGEM started ramping up geometrically, one of the things we didn’t anticipate was where do the alumni go?” Endy said. “Some of the alumni would go back to institutions, and the institutions had no clue what was going on in terms of engineering and biology, and so they would leave and graduate and they would have to do something extra-institutional—BioCurious, Genspace, DIYbio …”
But, he admitted, he wasn’t sure what to think about that: “When people work in an extra-institutional context in a garage, are they good or bad? Are they garagistas—right?—or are they entrepreneurs? And if I’m at Stanford, jeez, I have to be celebrating the garagistas, because it’s Bill (Hewlett) and Dave (Packard) and Larry (Page). This is how we live and thrive. So we can’t turn the extra-institutional actors in biotech into the enemy. We have to figure out how to just make it awesome.”
Now, Endy said he’s seeing a shift from, “We don’t know what to make of them,” to “they‘re actually becoming the engine of the toolkit.”
Kelley argued that to “really facilitate the democratization of science in this area,” the kind of research infrastructure that is available to elite scientists at places like Harvard, MIT, Stanford, UCSF, and Berkeley should be available to scientists all over the country.
And that’s what businesses like Frezza’s Emerald Therapeutics aim to do. It’s also contributing to the new wave by enabling small players to startup in biotech. “We charge per experiment,” he said. “You are paying no more than a couple bucks per experiment, and you don’t have to buy millions of dollars’ worth of lab equipment to get started.” The revolution has begun.