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Reversing Extinction, Making Mice Glow & Building a Genome—the Latest in Biotech Innovation

When it comes to innovation in the world of biotech, the possibilities are not endless, exactly, but they are pretty mind-blowing. At our recent What’s Now: San Francisco event, synthetic biologist Andrew Hessel described a future in which mice glow in the dark, the phenomenon of extinction is—well, extinct—and humans manage to stay much healthier much longer. And according to Andrew, while we won’t have 3D printers making human tissue anytime soon, scientists have already experimented with growing human tissue on fruit.

Science fiction primes us for what our expectations are for the future, Andrew says. In 2014, he and a team of scientists made a synthetic virus that kills bacteria, a major breakthrough in the world of biotech. Andrew currently works at Autodesk on whole genome engineering, though he assured the audience that his team isn’t “making synthetic babies.”

Andrew discussed the wide-ranging and profound implications of CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats), a five-year-old technology which he describes as a “low-cost way of doing cut and paste in virtually any genome.” He described research to genetically edit a pig in order to make its organs more suitable for human transplantation. He also talked about the potential of doing away with the concept of extinction—”nothing has to go extinct anymore, if we have the code or know how to recreate it from something similar”—and research conducted on mice that keeps older mice healthy even as they age.

Andrew made a credible case that biotech will, in short order, transform both the field of agriculture and the treatment of infectious diseases. Last year, more than $1.2 billion was invested in biotechnology. Though as tends to happen in a variety of industries, regulation and education are lagging behind the forward edge of tech. He also noted that on top of that, scientists tend to be conservative because their money comes from public funding. Though he acknowledges the risks of gene editing (and Hacking the President’s DNA was a way for him to explore one of these potential risks) Andrew is ultimately much more excited than worried about the effects that gene editing will have on the future of humanity, and the future of all living things. “It isn’t just about selection,” Andrew says, “it’s about human intention being reflected in every organism.”

Andrew argued that “nature is already trying to kill you” and believes that humans have more to worry about from the hacking of electronic code, heart disease and cancer, than we do from bad actors engineering viruses. He posited that most people know more about their iPhones than they do about biology. He doesn’t think humans “taking the reins of evolution” is a bad thing, though he made the point that because humans are at the top of the pyramid in terms of complexity, we will be among the last organisms to benefit. Despite the rapid clip of innovation in the industry, there’s still a tremendous amount about our DNA that even scientists don’t know. “Biotech is the most powerful tech we know about in terms of manufacturing and computation,” says Andrew, “but we didn’t make it.”