Austen Heinz of Cambrian Genomics Interview: GMO creatures & people

Austen Heinz of Cambrian Genomics.
Austen Heinz of Cambrian Genomics.

What’s Cambrian Genomics?

With rapid advances in genomics, gene editing, and methods to reproduce life in the lab such as cloning, today creating genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has never been easier.

While there have been of course loads of discussions of GMOs in the past, we are entering a new era of what one might call DIY GMOs, when everyday people outside of a lab (possibly enabled by biotech companies) might be able in theory to create new GMOs themselves. This could in the future even extend to designer human babies.

One of the companies out there at the forefront of advancing the idea of DIY GMOs is Cambrian Genomics, which prints DNA that could be used to make synthetic organisms. I interviewed the leader of Cambrian, Austen Heinz, below on his thoughts about this unfolding GMO revolution. (Sad update that Heinz committed suicide some months after this post.)

Paul: You have talked about “democratizing creation”. What does that mean? What would be the positives of that goal if achieved? Are there risks?

Heinz: It means that anyone with a smart phone and a credit card can build new living organisms that never previously existed.

The impact will be to allow billions of people around the world to write the code of life. This will have a profound effect on culture, politics, and religion but more importantly it will give a tremendous boost to researchers attempting to solve the world’s greatest problems.

The risk is non-existent if the organism does not leave a locked down centralized Bio-safety level 3 or level 4 facility. We are currently in discussions with contract research organizations that either have or will have this capacity so that we can enable literally anyone in the world anywhere to make real new lifeforms one their phone or tablet.

It’s important to note that even though the poor will now be able write the code of life just like the rich do now—only the rich will be able to access their creations. That’s because the cost to release organisms is extremely high because of the need for significant testing and government interaction to clear regulatory hurdles.

We hope that we can not only democratize creation but also democratize access to creation through our Creature Creator crowdfunding platform. As an example Glowing Plant was able to raise $484k which was enough cash to clear the plant for release in the USA from the EPA and USDA. To secure release in the EU and Asian countries would have required an even larger amount of money. Therefore to get your creation out you really need to be a corporation with significant cash. But we think we can help here as well. 1. Lowering the amount of capital necessary to get to product (lowering the barriers to angel and institutional investment) and 2. Crowd funding consumer synthetic biology products.

Cambrian Genomics
The Cambrian Genomics team

Paul: What kinds of genetic changes are customers wanting to make in living things or do you imagine them wanting to make? 

Heinz: Since we are all running faulty DNA code we all have a strong personal imperative to fix our code. In our lifetime we are likely to get cancer which is the result of DNA mutations. Also most people will develop an intestinal condition at some point which is the result if having the wrong bacterial DNA inside of you.

Does that mean everyone will design and print DNA to fix their personal medical condition. No. But it will allow them to write DNA that could lead to a commercial product that could potentially help them. The release of that product could be through a major pharmaceutical company or through the Creature Creator platform. We currently have two probiotic companies in the Creature Creator program.

Paul: One can imagine one kind of changes such as correcting a mutation, but what about what some might view as “novelties” such as a glowing pet bird? We can see Glowing Plant doing this kind of thing with plants. What about glowing animals? Researchers have made GFP animals of various kinds for experiments; what about customers doing it just for fun or the thrill of being a creator?

Heinz: Sometimes things that look like toys are actually critical to the progress of the human species. The gaming industry has definitely pushed ahead microprocessor development and virtual reality gaming is now forcing electronics engineers to solve deep problems that will be useful for much more than games.

The entrants to the international genetically engineered machines competition at MIT are mostly building games—written in DNA and executed and played by cells. Color changing bacteria for instance. But the aim is to develop a higher level programming language to control life, which would be a significant accomplishment.

Glowing plants may seem trivial but the ability to do significant genome engineering on plants may unlock our ability to make plants that capture significantly more carbon from the atmosphere to deal with global warming or plants that can create more rainfall than existing plants.

Paul: You mentioned that you wouldn’t want your customers doing “bad” things. Do you have a bioethicist on board to help with that or an external advisory committee or something like that?

Heinz: Simple the CDC has a list of bad things like Small Pox that we don’t print. If we don’t know what it is we dont print it. Also we only ship to validated university and commercial laboratories.

Paul: Can you tell us a bit about the price tag for custom made organisms? For example you were quoted “Anyone in the world that has a few dollars can make a creature”. How many dollars are we talking about today? Do you expect the price to come down?

In the next few months we’ll be offering 20 500mers for $50 as a promotional offer. If you aren’t with an approved university or corporation you will have to use a third party contract research organization to take that DNA and make a creature for you because we won’t send you the DNA directly.

Over the next decade I expect the cost of synthetic DNA to approach the price of DNA sequencing currently $1,000 for billions of letters. However I expect the cost to release a creature to remain high since getting over regulatory hurdles will continue to involve expensive testing.

Paul: You were quoted in the WSJ, “I can’t believe that after 10 or 20 years people will not design their children digitally”. Are you an advocate for such human genetic modification? Some folks are scared of the idea of “designer babies”? What are you views on this?

Heinz: My view is that if you don’t want a baby with a disease like Harlequin-ichthyosis—I urge you to look it up

—then you will use a computer and genomics to help make your child.

Already people are designing babies digitally via selection whether through pre-implant genetic diagnosis or through mitochondrial embryo transplant i.e. 3 parent babies.

Paul: Are genetically modified humans definitely on the horizon? Not a question so much of “if”, but rather “when”? 

Heinz: Genetically modified humans are already in existence in many countries. In fact thanks to a more relaxed medical regulatory environment in Europe you are about to see large numbers of genetically modified humans there. Glybera, from Dutch biotech firm UniQure is the first approved gene therapy treatment in the Western world.  The genetic modification fights an ultra-rare genetic disease called lipoprotein lipase deficiency (LPLD) that clogs the blood with fat. It cost over a million euros per treatment but is now approved.

It’s likely that in the next 100 years almost every human will be genetically modified throughout their lifetime. But already you have to wonder how having these new genetically modified humans will begin affecting culture and politics.

My cofounder George Church at Harvard University pointed out this irony recently. Imagine the leader of a well established anti-gmo group in Europe gets the treatment. Then you’d have a genetically modified organism rallying against the existence of genetically modified organisms.  It’s going to be fun to watch culture and politics change in real time in light of these absurd cases.

Paul: How do you counter bioethicists such as Marcy Darnovsky who calls your vision “techno-libertarianism” and raises ethical concerns about genetic modification?

Heinz: I think she has a good point. If the power of synthetic biology was released without any regulation I can’t imagine things going well.

Paul: You at one point mentioned concern over potential negatives from over-regulation of your industry. Do you believe that your business should be free of regulations? Have you been in communication with any regulators so far such as the FDA?

Heinz: I don’t have any problem with regulation because the regulations are currently very reasonable with respect to synthetic DNA.

“Don’t print bad stuff from this list” are pretty easy instructions to follow.

We take things further than that though by identifying the sequences of all orders and only shipping to approved research entities. We will not ship to residential addresses.

Paul: I will ask you a question that you yourself posed in an interview “‘How do we democratize creation without killing everyone?” How can this be achieved and still retain an unregulated state?

Heinz: Simple—you don’t have an unregulated  state. Genetically modified organisms are regulated for good reason. It would be absurd to send DNA out to anyone who ordered it.

Paul: With your technology one might say, “the sky’s not the limit”. Can you imagine creating life on another planet such as Mars? Essentially terraforming?

Heinz: Yes definitely, but you have to take into account geological considerations. Mars does not have a molten core and lacks the magnetosphere necessary to shield its atmosphere. Therefore whatever atmosphere you create through the breakdown of oxygen from perchlorate in the soil and the melting of frozen water in the ice caps would be lost into space. However you could imagine partial terraforming. Maybe we could build a city on Mars like the encapsulated world in the Truman show.

What is very cool is that since life can be reduced to information i.e. 1s and 0s it will be possible to design and make organisms on Earth as a Mars mission is ongoing. Once the organism is validated you can simply email it to Mars. What’s also cool is that Martians could also potentially make useful creatures for Earth without having to physically transport the organism back to Earth. What’s so interesting about that is you could have a booming software economy on Mars much in the same way Israel has a booming software economy now despite the fact it has very few resources like Mars.

We might also think of Mars as a better place to do riskier science experiments. For instance it might be a better idea to build a Jurassic Park on Mars than on Earth. If the super intelligent Martian raptors escaped the airlock we wouldn’t have to worry much—as long as we don’t make the them smart enough to fly spaceships back to Earth.

Paul. Forgetting for the moment cost, regulation, or other practical roadblocks to hurdle, what else excites you most as you look to the future with this kind of technology if you let your imagination loose?

Heinz: I’m extremely excited about the work going on in Ed Boyden’s lab at MIT. Being able to control consciousness through genetic engineering combined with electronics may be the most significant work human beings will ever do.

5 thoughts on “Austen Heinz of Cambrian Genomics Interview: GMO creatures & people”

  1. Life cannot “be reduced to information i.e. 1s and 0s” in a nice little DNA package. Life is also about context. Context matters, a lot, at every level. Ecology matters. Try packaging Ecosystem Earth as a bunch of 1s and 0s.

    Two words spring to mind: (1) underthought, (2) overhyped

    It strikes me as remarkable how stringent some people are about regulating my cells as drugs when they are used for autologous purposes. If proportionate regulations were applied before unleashing these weird 1s and 0s upon Ecosystem Earth then we could all rest easy, comfortably assured that there would never be wealth enough to make it happen…

    For 5 minutes I have read and contemplated the virtues of “genetic frivolity”. Thus far, I am not impressed.

    1. Could not agree more.

      Another flaw in his ideology is to believe that cancer, overall, is solely the result of faulty DNA.

      This completely ignores the field of biochemistry, and the science behind genetic expression, which outlines how and why DIET and LIFESTYLE are the main drivers of disease – especially cancer and heart disease.

      So far, Heinz presents himself as another whiz kid who does not understand what he is meddling with. But insists on creating a highly costly “magic bullet.”

      It’d be great if, collectively, the GMO charlatans would get around to establishing safety + efficacy for GMO FOODS before mucking around with our own genetics.

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