I was in line for coffee at the Business Innovation Factory (BIF) Summit this past September and was starting to get jittery. I began making conversation with the guy in front of me to distract myself, and since java was on my mind I figured that was as good a topic as any. So I made a throwaway comment about how useless I was until I got my morning cup.
That was when the conversation got weird. Like me, the guy I had chosen to talk to also loved coffee. He loved it so much, he told me, that he planned to engineer a strain with psychotropic substances spliced into its genetic code. At first I thought he was kidding. But as we continued to talk, it became clear he most certainly was not.
My new companion was Andrew Hessel, the CEO of Humane Genomics— a company that is working on a kind of genetic engineering far too few people know about considering the impact it is going to have on every one of our lives. By the time we went our separate ways, I had invited him to sit down for an interview about his work with our readers. Fortunately he agreed.
Michael Schein: How did you end up working at the forefront of biology and technology?
Andrew Hessel: I have the strangest career ever. I originally got into the life sciences simply because all the other areas of technology just weren’t that interesting to me. Most technology falls apart and ends up in the junkyard. Cars rust. Even buildings can burn down. But biotech is different because even though organisms die, DNA gets passes on. Unfortunately, as I quickly learned, most scientists make really crappy money. So I thought: Let me find a way to pursue what I’m interested in but in a way that lets me make a good living. With that in mind, I’ve detoured into a medley of different technology companies. Eventually I made my way to work that’s at the intersection of biological research and computers. That’s how I ended up doing what I do now.
Schein: Tell us about the specific kind of biotech that takes up most of your headspace these days.
Hessel: Our field spent incredible amounts of time and money racing to sequence the human genome. And we succeeded. Once we finally finished sequencing it, we could finally read the thing. So then I said to myself, “Okay, now it’s time to start writing DNA.” With that in mind, we’ve developed machines called DNA synthesizers. Now we can do genetic engineering sitting in front of a laptop using software that’s kind of like Microsoft Word but for DNA code. The output of what you write is genetic code that goes to a printer. This printer takes the building blocks of DNA and puts them together to form the DNA molecule you designed. Then you can insert that into a cell to reprogram it. The field is called genome synthesis and ever since I’ve been working in it I’ve been trying to raise awareness about it.
Schein: How is this different than CRISPR (the genetics technology that seems to get all the attention these days)?
Hessel: CRISPR is a powerful technology for editing a large genome. If you only need to add a new feature to a gene or repair a broken gene, that’s what CRISPR does. Now if you want to build a genome from scratch, you need something else. The people working on the forefront of genome synthesis are not content just to add a small change to an existing genome. We want to write the genome. At this point, we’re limited by the current technology for printing out DNA and assembling it. It’s still pretty crude. But the first virus genome was synthesized in 2002 and the first bacterial genome was synthesized in 2010. Right now, the leading project in the world in genome synthesis is to make the genome of a yeast from scratch, and that one should be completed this year.
Schein: And then what?
Hessel: Right now we’re using genetic synthesis as a research tool. But when we get better at designing and building a whole genome— particularly a large genome—then we can start to reprogram plants from scratch or even write the genomes of animals, including people. That’s why I’m a cofounder of a project that is kind of on the opposite end of the spectrum of the Human Genome Project. Instead of reading the genome of a human being, our project is about writingthe genome of a human being. What I’ve learned in this journey through science is that the only thing the general public cares about is people.
Schein: We’ve been told about revolutionary technologies before only to see them fall significantly short of expectation (see: Segway). How do we know this is different?
Hessel: The cool thing is that DNA synthesis is like computer programming. But unlike computer code, which is a hodgepodge of various languages and processors and platforms, there’s only one code in biology. So before long you’ll be able to get a group of people to sit down and just ask them what they want to build. All you have to do is look at the diversity in nature to see what’s possible. From undersea organisms to bacteria to all the animals in the Serengeti, this incredible diversity all comes from one programming language. We will all have access to the same code and it’ll be virtually limitless. So soon it’s going to be about getting together to think about what we want to engineer and what are we realistically able to bring to market.