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The hottest new programming language? Biology

Futurist Amy Webb discusses her new book on synthetic biology.
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Amy Webb

· 6 min read

You all know the story: In late 2020, a decades-in-the-making scientific breakthrough gave the pandemic-weary world a shot of hope. Less than a year after Covid-19 began sweeping the globe, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna announced vaccines for the virus, powered by a technology called mRNA.

These rapidly developed, highly effective, mRNA-based vaccines underscore the promise of synthetic biology, a fast-growing branch of biotechnology that aims to “program living, biological structures as though they were tiny computers,” according to a new book by the quantitative futurist Amy Webb and geneticist Andrew Hessel, called The Genesis Machine: Our Quest to Rewrite Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology.

But mRNA is just one example of a synthetic biology technology. As we speak, people around the world are bending biology to all sorts of precise, ambitious, and (at times) controversial ends. A quick list: resurrecting woolly mammoths, reversing disease, growing meat in a lab, editing genes, producing waste-free materials.

Despite all of this activity, Webb and Hessel argue that the era of synthetic biology is just beginning. Money is starting to flow into the space, while key costs are falling. In 2021, synthetic biology startups raised a total of $18 billion—more than double the $8 billion raised in 2020, per SynBioBeta, an industry group. And, nowadays, a startup can sequence your genome for a couple hundred bucks—a far cry from the ~$2.7 billion and 13 years the Human Genome Project required.

We spoke with Webb about the new book, which was released on Tuesday, and what’s in store for the burgeoning bioeconomy.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

In The Genesis Machine, you write that, one day, we will regard synthetic biology as a general purpose technology. What does that mean?

There are lots of invisible technologies that power everyday life, without which our modern lives would be pretty difficult, but we don’t really think about them anymore.

So those are things like electricity—I don’t think anybody flips a light switch on in the United States and marvels at the circuitry that is illuminating the room. Electricity is sort of basic technology at this point, and I would say the internet is also basic technology.

So, what does it look like for synthetic biology to actually become one of those technologies, like electricity?

My thinking is that at some point in the future, synthetic biology—which is really an umbrella term for different technologies—will just be part of our lives. Gene-editing, before babies are born, will no longer be scary. We won’t have to debate the ethics of whether or not to optimize embryos; it will just be something we do.

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You know, the current debates over GMO foods and whether or not to eat them, or the labeling conventions we have for organic versus conventional—I think some of that goes away, because I think we’re going to need to edit the things that we eat in order for us to sustain ourselves. It will just be.

Unlike with the rise of the tech giants—where there was not really a regulatory body in the US that had clear jurisdiction—here there are existing regulatory bodies. There’s the USDA, and the FDA.

Is the US better-positioned to regulate synthetic biology from the get-go, as a result?

Yes, there are, but they use something called the Coordinated Framework. [Editor’s note: The formal name for this is the U.S. Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology, created in 1986 and involving the USDA, FDA, and EPA.] In practical terms, it’s a response to the way that life used to be—not a plan for what’s on the horizon. And on top of that, these agencies are understaffed anyway.

And so if we zoom out, what else is happening around the world? China has coordinated to some degree, some of this work, in a way that’s going to make that country much more competitive…I mean, they—just a couple of weeks ago—updated their five-year plan, and biotech is a huge piece of that.

It’s really not been a part of our national strategy. We don’t really have long-term vision. And we don’t have this coordination that we're going to need. So, in addition to just making it so that if you’re a researcher, and you’re just trying to figure out how to make mushrooms that don’t have to be thrown away so we have less food waste, you’re gonna have a hard time trying to get that research into the marketplace. And God forbid, you’re using other people’s research in any way, because you’ll then have all kinds of patent issues. China doesn’t have that problem.

To what extent are the major obstacles facing the bioeconomy engineering challenges rather than scientific challenges?

Some of what we’re talking about here is an engineering challenge, for sure. There is great complexity, certainly, with the human genome. But doing some of this at scale, it is more of an engineering challenge than it is a biological one.

The other piece of this is the capriciousness of investors. So one thing I’m actually kind of worried about is that the mRNA vaccines had been in development for a decade. They had use cases, they were proved out, but they were so different that nobody wanted to put the resources into bringing them to market. We had the perfect storm of a use case and drastic need—enormous demand space—which is what took a technology that already worked and gave it a commercial use case…So now what’s happening is, you got investors very excited about all the other things that mRNA vaccines can do.

We’re on a longer time horizon with this, as we are with some other things like artificial intelligence, right, and my concern here is…the numbers being thrown around are almost incomprehensible. Depending on who you ask, this is a $4 trillion YoY industry.

Altos Labs…raised 3 billion—with a B—dollars, on the philosophy, the idea, that cells can be reprogrammed, which is all true. But there are lots of cautionary tales in this space—Amyris being one of them, where you had great science that just needed time. And you can’t rush this stuff to market. So I’m a little worried that, because we don’t have a lot of coordination in the US, and because we are putting products ahead of process a lot of times, that we could wind up missing some of the expectations—the inflated expectations that people have—rather than being patient.

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