Data, Digital Biology, and the 21st Century

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On Wednesday, February 4, 2015, SoHo House hosted The Science & Entertainment Exchange for a tantalizing peek into the bleeding edge of Synthetic Biology: its relatively short past, its current state, and its future potential.

The Exchange welcomed Andrew Hessel, a researcher with Autodesk Inc.’s Bio/Nano Programmable Matter Group and the co-founder of the Pink Army Cooperative (the world’s first co-op biotech company), and Ed You, Supervisory Special Agent in the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI’s) Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) Directorate, Biological Countermeasures Unit. James Peaco, the local WMD Coordinator for the Los Angeles Branch of the FBI joined later for the Q&A portion of the evening.

Andrew Hessel provided a provocative glimpse into the world of synthetic biology. Specifically, he offered an understanding of how scientists can now program life itself, recognizing that DNA is like a computer language. Hessel peeled back the layers of the secret code for everything that is alive, explaining that currently biotechnologists are “hacking every living thing on the planet.” Hessel introduced the audience to one of his favorite printers, the “DNA synthesizing printer,” which makes possible 3-D printing of DNA for living cells. This technology has the capacity to reprogram viruses to create “good things” such as viruses that could destroy E. coli cells in the stomach, or even cure cancer.

Hessel noted that sequencing one strand of DNA 15 or 20 years ago came at a lofty price of more than $1 million, whereas today that same process now costs well under $1,000. He touched on the vast potential of the field of synthetic biology, highlighting the do-it-yourself home labs that students and hobbyists are able to run out of their closets or garages due to lower costs. Lastly, Hessel teased the audience with a few of the promises of the field, like reviving and restoring extinct animals, unraveling clues for living longer and healthier lives, or using the DNA of yeast to manufacture cow-free hamburgers.

Ed You turned over a different stone, spotlighting the many challenges the FBI faces in the realm of biotechnology and the use of WMDs. Agent You explored “duel use” biotechnology, a term referencing legitimate uses of data to create synthetic biology, flipped and engineered to cause harm to individuals or groups. He expressed concern about the faster and cheaper sequencing of DNA, foreign entities stealing millions of hospital records for scientific data (not your credit card info), or the ease of DNA access on the Internet—noting the incident in 2006 when a reporter ordered Smallpox online with little trouble. (See http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1650882/posts.)

However, it was not all doom and gloom from Agent You. He applauded the growing amateur populace for creating community labs that allow for greater access and understanding of science. You embraced some recent triumphs in biotech like the enzyme created by a team of university students to breakdown gluten. In the end, the FBI message was clear: promote science while enhancing public safety, prevent science misuse, and ensure that advances in public and private security must coincide with advances in science.

The audience Q&A portion of the evening did not disappoint and was everything one might expect from a creative group of Hollywood screenwriters and producers. Questions ranged from the possibility of incubating designer babies, the capability of harvesting body parts, how to digitally watermark synthetic viruses, to the prospect of using recycled human feces to power vehicles, airplanes, and sea craft.

With the inevitable wave of technological advancements and the daunting flow of information coming at them during the lecture, the audience breathed an energy of optimism knowing progressive scientists like Hessel are at the forefront of the rapidly changing world of life science, and that the FBI is committed to being proactive in the biotechnology sphere. All in all, it was a very successful way to kick of The Exchange’s 2015 event series.

For more information regarding synthetic biology and biotechnology:

Andrew Hessel: http://andrewhessel.com

FBI: http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/investigate/terrorism/wmd