Techdirt has written often enough about applications of DNA sequencing -- the elucidation of the four chemical "letters" A, C, G, T that go to make up genomes. But things have moved on: the new frontier is not just analyzing DNA, but synthesizing it. A fascinating article on SFGate describes the activities of one company working in this area, Cambrian Genomics, and some of the tricky ethical issues it raises:
In Austen Heinz's vision of the future, customers tinker with the genetic codes of plants and animals and even design new creatures on a computer. Then his startup, Cambrian Genomics, prints that DNA quickly, accurately and cheaply.
Printing the new DNA is the easy bit; increasingly, the hard bit is deciding what should -- and shouldn't -- be printed:
"Anyone in the world that has a few dollars can make a creature, and that changes the game," Heinz said. "And that creates a whole new world."
The 31-year-old CEO has a deadpan demeanor that can be hard to read, but he is not kidding. In a makeshift laboratory in San Francisco, his synthetic biology company uses lasers to create custom DNA for major pharmaceutical companies. Its mission, to "democratize creation" with minimal to no regulation, frightens bioethicists as deeply as it thrills Silicon Valley venture capitalists.
Right now, employees check each order to make sure that a customer isn't printing, say, base pairs of Ebola. But staff won’t have time to do that if, as Heinz predicts, orders dramatically increase in the next two years. In that case, he said, Cambrian might first ship the plates to an independent facility where experts would put the DNA inside cells, film and analyze it, and make sure that it is safe before releasing it.
That may be true, but as this technology spreads, and becomes cheaper, more and more companies around the world will start to offer similar services, making it harder to oversee their working. And then there will be the backstreet labs that intentionally try to avoid any kind of control. Soon, if you can model it, you will be able to synthesize it. Cambrian Genomics is already helping to drive the spread of its tools and ideas:
This facility, he envisions, could be run by another company, not necessarily the government. Because Cambrian wants to keep government interference to an absolute minimum, its CEO insists that behaving well is in the company’s best interest.
Cambrian will also share its technology with startups in which it holds a 10 percent equity stake. One is Petomics, which is making a probiotic for cats and dogs that makes their feces smell like bananas. Another is SweetPeach, which hopes to take samples of users' vaginal microorganisms and send back personalized probiotics to promote vaginal health. (Contrary to Heinz's description of SweetPeach at a recent conference, the products will not make vaginas smell like peaches.)
Given the rapid advances in synthetic biology, that certainly seems likely. The question is: will the next few hundred years be good amazing, or bad amazing? Where -- and how -- do we draw the line here?
Heinz seeks to help create "thousands" more startups in this vein. On top of that, he wants to replace lost limbs, fight viruses and develop alternatives to antibiotics. Maybe someday, he said, scientists will even print DNA on Mars. "It’s going to be an amazing next few hundred years."
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