Andrew Hessel is a futurist and catalyst in biological technologies, helping industry, academics, and authorities better understand the changes ahead in life science. He is a Distinguished Researcher with Autodesk Inc.’s Bio/Nano Programmable Matter group, based out of San Francisco. He is also the co-founder of the Pink Army Cooperative, the world’s first cooperative biotechnology company, which is aiming to make open source viral therapies for cancer.
As the co-chair of Bioinformatics and Biotechnology at the Singularity University, he addresses the disruptive shifts underway in life. He speaks widely on topics that include cells as living computers, life science as an emerging IT industry, and biological safety and security. He is active in the iGEM and DIYbio (do-it-yourself) communities and frequently works with students and young entrepreneurs.
The following is an interview with Andrew Hessel about Biotechnology, Genetic Engineering and Future of Life Science. The interview has been edited for brevity.
Niaz: You are a genomic scientist and consultant in DNA technologies. Working with leading academic and commercial groups, you have traveled the globe for more than 15 years in the exploration of digital biology, the successor to recombinant DNA technology that is transforming DNA into an easy-to-use programming language for biological systems. Your work is empowering a new generation of young researchers to tackle big biology related problems like sustainable fuel production, environmental cleanup, superbugs and cancer. At the beginning of our interview, please tell us a little about your background and how did you get started?
Andrew: I really love technology, particularly computers, but saw living things as special. I wanted to understand how they worked, so majored in cell biology, microbiology, and genetics.
Niaz: What first got you interested in biotechnology? Tell us about the road that led you to the world of biotechnology, synthetic biology, and genomics?
Andrew: I was interested in DNA code and realized that using computer programs to organize and analyze it would be very powerful. I started to write software and databases. Combined with lab bench skills, this gave me some unique abilities at the time. I was hired by Amgen, Inc. in 1995. It was an exciting time, with the Human Genome Project ramping up and Internet and biotechnologies booming. I learned a lot, fast. One of these lessons was how valuable a small genetic program could be. Amgen’s phenomenal success could be traced back to just a few hundred bases of genetic code.
Eventually, the draft of the human genome was published and the economic bubble burst. Things slowed down. I took some time off to reflect. I realized that it had only taken 10 years for scientists and industry to build the technologies needed to read large amounts of DNA. It seemed reasonable that DNA writing technologies would also evolve quickly. I started tracking improvements in DNA synthesis, the core technology that makes synthetic biology possible. The field was still very small. I was lucky to meet many of the pioneers of synthetic biology early on. It was like Silicon Valley in the early days, only this time around it was all based on carbon.
Niaz: Now we are learning how to make a living world which was not possible before. We can engineer our nature to sustain our need. What is the interface between programming and biology? How does computer science relate to the genetic code?
Andrew: Computer programming is relatively easy. Engineers made the processors. Engineers created the languages and compilers. Because we’ve made everything, we know everything about how these things work. The specifications are known.
Cells are essentially living computers. Genetic engineering is software engineering. The challenge is that we didn’t create the cell or the programming language. We don’t understand fully how everything works yet. This limits the sophistication of the programs we can write. But we’re learning more every day. As our knowledge grows, so do our capabilities.
Synthetic biology is still very young compared to electronic computing. Human-readable programming languages are just starting to appear. DNA synthesis, which compiles this code into an executable form, is still expensive. But as the computer design tools improve and DNA synthesis costs fall, programming living cells and organisms gets easier to do, faster to do, and a lot cheaper. This opens up biotechnology for more people, just as the PC brought computing to the masses so will computing transform healthcare.
Niaz: Tell us about programming our genes? Would it be possible for our genetic codes to be published on the web and open sourced by ‘gene programmers’ for example?
Andrew: Absolutely. A lot of genetic code is already published openly – and more of it is flooding into databases daily. This includes data on individuals. For example, I’m part of a project called the PGP – Personal Genome Project, where participants willingly publish their genomes for open research.
We’re already seeing dozens of small biotech companies using next-generation DNA technologies – companies like Ginkgo Bioworks in Boston, which engineers custom microbes, or San Francisco’s Glowing Plant, Inc. I expect many more companies to appear. Bioengineering and biological programming are already hot jobs – and I believe there will be a lot more positions to fill in the future.
Niaz: What are the possibilities of biotechnology? How it will change the world and how it affects to find the new ways to achieve success?
Andrew: The possibilities are staggering. Consider the range of existing organisms. Every environmental niche is populated. There are millions of large species on our planet, and possibly billions of microbial and viral species. This is just what’s here today, now, or at least what we know about.
Biotechnology greatly expands the range of possibilities. There’s no species barrier at the code level, so we can mix and match traits from species that otherwise could not share genetic code easily. We can also create new environments and direct evolutionary processes to produce novel traits. We can print cells using 3D printers. We can connect cells or cell components to electrical devices, creating bridges that never existed before – possibly leading to new sensors or electronically-controlled metabolic processes.
These approaches are unfamiliar to people today. But fifty years ago, so were computers and robotics. Over the coming decades, the fundamental processes of living systems will be better understood, and biology will become more accepted as an everyday technology. I think this is a positive thing for humanity and for our planet.
Niaz: How long until genome sequencing becomes available on an iPhone?
Andrew: Prototype devices are already about the size of an iPhone. But having this feature on a phone isn’t what people are asking for today. When there’s enough demand and the technology is cheap enough, it will happen.
Niaz: As you know, Robots are starting to emerge in sequencing labs. To what extent can this field be roboticized?
Andrew: DNA sequencing has been increasingly automated since the late 1990’s. The robots are already doing much of the work, even the sample preparation.
Niaz: Can you please briefly tell us about synthetic biology?
Andrew: It’s computer-aided genetic engineering –programming living things using software and hardware tools. I like to think of it as the next IT industry. It’s already beginning to happen. For example, the iGEM Synthetic Biology program (http://igem.org) has already trained tens of thousands of students. Kids today grow up digital. Increasingly, they’ll grow up biotechnological, comfortable and adept with the tools to engineer biological systems.
Niaz: What will be the first mainstream application to be introduced that is dependent on synthetic biology?
Andrew: By mainstream, I take it you mean some form of branded consumer application, since some engineered products are already incorporated into many common products. An example is modified enzymes or oils in laundry detergents and soaps, and also biofuels.
For people to actively seek out a synthetic biology product in large numbers, it will need to be something fun and/or useful, affordable, and above all safe. I think there’s a good chance it will be a food or drink – probably one based on yeast, since post-processing can eliminate any genetically modified yeast from the product. I’m tracking projects in beer and milk that have a high potential to go mainstream.
Niaz: When will the first human organs be created using synthetic biology?
Andrew: This is more a challenge for the cell biologists. 3D bio-printing technologies are very exciting right now. Prototype tissues and organs are starting to appear, but the capabilities are still very limited. These will improve but the rate of improvement is at present hard to estimate – there are too few data points. That said, I think the first bio-printed human heart will be transplanted in less than a decade.
Another approach is to engineer humanized animals. There are almost a billion pigs in the world. If their organs were engineered to be immune-compatible with humans, almost overnight there would be no shortage of organs for transplant.
Given enough research and development, I expect we might learn how to activate self-repair or self-replacement of our organs so transplants won’t be necessary. But this is still in the realm of science fiction for now.
Niaz: How much progress can be expected in the field of synthetic biology by 2025?
Andrew: It will grow exponentially or super-exponentially as DNA synthesis and other biotechnologies advance. You can bank on it, like Moore’s law.
Niaz: You are the co-founder of the Pink Army Cooperative, the world’s first cooperative biotechnology company, which is aiming to make open source viral therapies for cancer. Can you tell us more about Pink Army Cooperative, its initiatives and upcoming activities?
Andrew: I started Pink Army in 2009 to make people aware that the rapid advances in biotechnology are allowing smaller innovators to compete effectively with big pharmaceutical companies. As a cooperative, it’s an open source company owned by the members and capitalized by the membership fees. After getting about 600 members, I stopped focusing on awareness and started working to create the digital tools for making synthetic cancer-fighting viruses very inexpensively. Meanwhile, viral therapies are beginning to have success in treating some cancers, in some cases completely eliminating them with a single treatment. I expect to do much more with the cooperative in the next year or so.
Niaz: You are a Distinguished Researcher at Autodesk and the former co-chair of bioinformatics and biotechnology at Singularity University. How has your experience with Autodesk and Singularity University affected your vision for biotech and Pink Army?
Andrew: Definitively. Singularity University allowed me to connect with other innovators around the world, including Autodesk. Since 2012, the team at Autodesk has been working to create innovative design tools and industry partnerships that will make biotechnology easier and yet more powerful. In short, Autodesk is building the tools that make Pink Army and other advanced biotechnology companies possible. And just a few months ago, we made our first synthetic virus, a bacteriophage called PhiX174. This was a first step toward one day producing cancer-fighting viruses.
Niaz: More people are now getting into biotech, nanotech, genetic engineering and genomics. What do you think about the important factors of the success in these industries?
Andrew: I think they are similar to other industries. If these technologies are used to create useful products and services that people are willing to pay for, the companies will be successful. Improvements in these technologies are reducing costs and risks of development, but these industries still face a more complicated path to the marketplace with their products than, say, the computer industry, at least in the US and UK. This could be a big opportunity for emerging markets in the short term. Eventually, I believe efforts the regulatory and approval processes must be streamlined.
Niaz: Why do we need to think really big as well as to be high ambitious in the filed of biotech, nanotech, genetic engineering and genomics? How to stay motivated to build the next big things from these domains?
Andrew: These are powerful technologies that can address global challenges but there is always the risk of accident or abuse. We must be open and transparent about what we are doing with these technologies and we must pursue positive applications. We need to train people to be responsible and safe in their practices. We must also update and empower the regulatory organizations to do their jobs properly.
Niaz: How big is life science industry? How is life science going to be evolving in near future? Do you think we are about to live like science fiction?
Andrew: I don’t have an exact figure dollar-wise, but collectively, including medicine, it’s in the trillions of dollars. Life science will only become more robust. I don’t think we’re going to live like in science fiction, just better because of what these technologies can deliver to people.
Niaz: What does excite you most now?
Andrew: How quickly things are changing. Opportunities abound for anyone that is interested in these areas.
Niaz: Is there anything else you would like for readers of eTalks to know about your work?
Andrew: I would just like people to explore this space for themselves. If my work gets them curious or inspired, that’s great.
Niaz: Thanks a lot for joining and sharing us your great ideas, insights and knowledge. We are wishing you good luck for all of your upcoming great endeavors.
Andrew: Thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts.
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