“If software ate the world last decade, biology will dominate the next”
The last decade saw the rise in popularity of software engineering jobs, marked by the increasing number of coding bootcamps, and rush by schools to add coding to the curriculum. This coming decade may see the rise of the genetic engineer. Instead of programming computers, the next decade will be about programming cells. While computers are programmed using ones and zeroes, cells can be programmed with the four letters that make up DNA: A, G, C and T.
Gingko Bioworks is one of the most prominent biotechnology companies in the hot area of synthetic biology. Synthetic biology is programming cells just as we program a computer. According to the National Human Genome Research Institute, it allows us to redesign organisms so that they have new abilities.
Examples include harnessing micro-organisms to clean pollutants in our soil, water and air, modifying rice to produce beta-carotene to prevent vitamin A deficiency, which causes blindness in up to half a million children every year, and engineering yeast to produce rose oil as an eco-friendly substitute for real roses that perfumers use.
Gingko Bioworks’ CEO and Co-founder Jason Kelly argues that we need to think bigger and beyond software to solve our most complex problems: “Websites can’t reverse climate change, apps won’t cure malaria and you can’t eat software.”
What Kelly says is not far from the truth. Some of our global grand challenges include food security, access to water, and global warming which biotechnology may be able to solve.
Gingko Bioworks is a platform that allows genetic engineers to program cells. They have developed automated genetic engineering foundries to speed up the process by using robots, lots of robots, to do the work that a PhD would. This means cell programming can be done much cheaper compared using a lab staffed purely by humans. It has also made it more accessible. Any large company or startup can use the platform for their projects.
Bayer, a multinational pharmaceutical and life sciences company, is currently working with Gingko Bioworks in an $100 million joint venture to develop microbes that allow crops to self-fertilise. Current fertilisation methods for crops mean that fertiliser seeps into waterways and lead to environmental pollution problems. Crops that fertilise themselves are a potential solution.
Synthetic biology not only improves food production and food security, the most exciting areas it could be used in include the production of advanced materials and electronics.
Kelly will be speaking at SXSW in this featured session – You Can’t Eat Software: Biology’s Big Future.
Healing unhealable wounds and 3D printing organs
Two scientists are working at the cutting edge of tissue engineering. Adam Feinberg from Carnagie Mellon University and Ronke Olabisi from UC Irvine are undertaking groundbreaking work in healing ‘unhealable’ wounds with adult stem cells and creating 3D bio-printed materials that can be used in biomedical research to test new drugs and print new organs such as hearts and lungs.
Stem cell therapy is a type of medical treatment where adult stem cells are used to restore damaged tissue to its pre-injured state. Mesenchymal stem cells which make our bone, fat, tendon and cartilage are used for research on the role of stem cells in wound treatment.
3D bio-printing is similar to traditional 3D printing except that cells and growth factors are used, instead of plastics and metals, to manufacture parts that mimic natural human tissue.
This technology can improve the survival rates of critically ill people and improve quality of life for those who have lost function in an organ such as a liver or kidney.
3D organ printing could save the 20 people that die everyday from lack of available organs for transplant. Across America alone, 115,000 people are waiting for an organ transplant so they can make it to their next birthday. The waiting list can be 3–5 years to get a suitable donor organ.
Eventually 3D bio-printing could allow people to upgrade themselves and rebuild their bodies from scratch. As seen in the Netflix series Altered Carbon, the ability to spin up a new body when your old body is destroyed could become a reality… for those that can afford it.
An Australian company, Inventia Life Sciences, has created an award winning 3D bio printer which is able to create realistic 3D models of cells that represent a tumour. It can print samples based on a patient’s actual tumour so that effectiveness of different cancer treatments can be tested. The aim is to use these 3D models to speed up cancer research.
At SXSW, Feinberg and Olabisi will discuss the processes, pitfalls and ethics of their research and how far we are from making this a reality. Hear it all at this featured session – The Future of Healing: Engineering Longer Life.
Over the next ten years, neural implants could become mainstream
Practising neurosurgeon and brain-tech innovator, Dr. Jordan Amadio, from the University of Texas Dell Seton Medical Centre, sees lots of brains. He believes over the next 10 years most of us will likely augment ourselves with neurotechnology.
Elon Musk’s Neuralink is one of the most high-profile neurotechnology companies. It is developing ultra high bandwidth brain computer interfaces which will allow paralysed humans to perform tasks able bodied people take for granted like picking up a glass of water or even operating our mobile phones.
Brain computer interfaces are a system that connects a human to a computer. The device that connects with your brain can be in the form of an implant or a device that you wear on your head. The device measures activity of the brain in the form of electric signals. Devices like these allow you to communicate or control technology, such as driving a car just by thinking about it.
Musk revealed some exciting developments in June 2019. Neuralink had developed an array containing up to 3072 electrodes that can be implanted into the brain’s cortex using nanobots. “Threads” that connect to the brain are thinner than human hair which make it difficult for humans to implant. This is where the surgical nanobots come in. These thin threads are designed to be minimally invasive so that there is less bleeding and bruising to the brain when inserting them.
Neuralink’s technology has been successfully tested in rats and a monkey. It was revealed that the monkey was able to control a computer with its brain. Musk is hopeful the technology will be in human brains via clinical trials planned for 2020.
Brain computer interface technology has been a hot topic for a while. At last year’s SXSW, a panel discussion featured Kernel, a company developing non-invasive neurotechnology. Kernal calls its technology neuroprosthetics, essentially brain augmentations that improve mental function and treat disorders. The talk touched on how its technology could help paraplegics regain movement and treat people with Alzheimer’s.
Amadio might be the first to spot the next generation of neurotechnology companies. As co-founder of NeuroLaunch, an accelerator program for neuroscience startups, Amadio has helped launch and grow 11 startups worth a combined $15 million.
Amadio will show us how our ability to heal and enhance the brain will empower us in this SXSW session – The Future of Your Brain: Neural Implants and More.
Human enhancement technology on the horizon
From overcoming disabilities, enhancing our memory or ultimately, as Elon Musk believes, to keep humans relevant in the age of AI, human enhancement technology has never been more relevant.
Performance enhancement drugs such as Modafinil and Adderall are already being taken by people in the hope it increases their focus at work and school. Exoskeletons are already helping paraplegics walk again. Prescription drugs such as Metformin and Rapamycin are currently being researched for its ability to extend human healthspan.
However it is genetic engineering and neural implants that will truly enable people to be smarter and live longer and healthier.
Genetic engineering could be applied to humans to give them natural immunity to certain diseases, cure disabilities and disease, and to enhance cognitive and physical capabilities.
In November 2018, a scientist named He Jiankui used a gene editing technology called CRISPR-Cas9 to edit the genes of twin baby girls in the hope of providing them immunity to HIV. This type of genetic engineering is prohibited by law in more than 40 countries. However there have been legal CRISPR-Cas9 trials, in the University of Pennsylvania and China, to treat adults with recurring cancers.