We’ve been genetically modifying things for years: insect resistant crops eradicated the use of cancer-causing pesticides, a cure for feline AIDS resulted in glow-in-the-dark cats, and “designer” babies promised to prevent disease and boost talent while becoming a status symbol.
The motives were most always harmless, and only sometimes ethically questionable.
But, this could all change.
Austen Heinz, the founder of San Francisco-based Cambrian Genomics —a DNA printing start-up backed by venture capitalists, is bringing both promise and fear to the field, pushing the technical and ethical boundaries of genetics. Through his company, consumers will be able to cheaply make custom DNA strands, including what Heinz calls “creatures.”
“Anyone in the world that has a few dollars can make a creature, and that changes the game,” Heinz told the San Francisco Chronicle. “And that creates a whole new world.”
Using standard methods, the cost of printing DNA could run upwards of a billion dollars or more, depending on the strand. But Heinz has found a way to significantly reduce the cost, which lies in the time consuming process it takes to grow error-free DNA.
The genetic material can grow quickly, but are typically riddled with errors or defects. Thus, more time is spent organization and obtaining ones free of failings. Heinz’s process uses 3D laser printing to allow large quantities to be sorted at a faster rate, driving down the price for a single strand and upping everyone’s chance at becoming a genetic designer.
It’s a bold and radical concept, wanting “to make totally new organisms that have never existed,” as Heinz described his goal at a conference in Vienna last year. But that’s not where he stops. He also wants to “replace every existing organism with a better one.”
And even bring some extinct species back to life.
“This technology is going to allow us to actually bring back dinosaurs, bring back extinct species,” Heinz told Bloomberg, “[to] make life forms that help us live in space and go to other planets.”
Have we learned nothing from the Jurassic Park franchise?
“We have to take seriously people like Austen Heinz who say they want to modify future generations of human beings and upgrade the human species,” Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I think that technical project is far more complicated than they acknowledge. Nonetheless, their story about what we should be striving for as human beings, as a society, I think is very troubling.”
Kickstarter is one start-up platform that seems to have realized the danger. They added a rule banning genetically modified organism after a campaign for glowing plants as a natural light source, supported by Cambrian Genomics, reached funding over seven times its goal of $65,000.
“It just created such a big fuss. They didn’t want to handle it,” he told Inc. of the new rule. “I don’t blame them. Most governments around the world are having difficulty regulating this field.”
The creation of synthetic DNA is a highly controversial method and a largely unregulated business, meaning that very few laws govern the industry.
Heinz’s solution? He created his own crowd-funding platform for genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which has yet to be launched.
But, given that over 120 investors have backed the company with $10 million in funding, it doesn’t seem like there is too much cause for concern surrounding the 11-person team who, in actuality, could potentially produce a lot of good.
For starters, correcting the genome sequencing of embryos with single-gene disorders, like the BRCA gene of breast cancer, Huntington’s disease or cystic fibrosis to make sure the child doesn’t develop them later in life.
And more trivial modifications like altering bodily odors and promoting a healthy lifestyle.
So far, Heinz has teamed with various probiotic companies. Petomics is in the process of developing a pet-food product to attribute a banana scent to animal feces. SweetPeach, which was originally described as a way to make vaginas smell like fruit, is actually a probiotic created with the purchaser’s vaginal microbiome to promote optimal health.
Heinz is also working with big-pharma companies like Glaxo Smith Kline, and Roche to supply various types of DNA for drug discovery and testing, while hoping to use his technology to replace organs, eradicate disease and advance medical treatments.
“It’s the most powerful technology humans have ever created,” he said. “Hydrogen bombs can destroy whole planets, but this is a technology that can create planets. This is the greatest human achievement of all time—the ability to read and write life, because that’s who we are.”