John Dalton: You argue that we’re entering a new era – the Biological Age – in which we have the skills and tools necessary to design and engineer biological structures as though they were tiny computers. This will truly transform healthcare, reproduction, aging, agriculture and our efforts to deal with climate change. Essentially, life itself is becoming programmable; we can design a healthier, more sustainable existence. You and your co-author wrote this book during COVID-19, during which we’ve learned just how little trust people have in expertise and science. Misinformation is rife, and effective. Even for those willing to “follow the science” this has been a confusing and frustrating time. There is no doubt that synthetic biology holds great promise; do you think our culture is ready for it?
Amy Webb: I recognize that some of what’s in our book is too radical for a general audience –– possibly too radical even for an audience of scientists. Because what we’re really asking is: what happens when we remove our current evolutionary constraints? What happens when we explicitly view biology as a technology platform? The biggest and most durable innovations of the 21st century will be at the nexus of biology and technology. For humans, animals, plants, viruses –– on Earth and off-planet. That will challenge our most cherished beliefs. In the book, we detail nine risks covering everything from IP and regulatory challenges to custom-made viruses. But one risk was so profound that we dedicated an entire chapter to it: trust. Without trust, the biggest promises of the field will never be achieved. So, to answer your question directly, no. Our culture is not ready for synthetic biology in the US and given my experience living in a few different countries I’d argue that most cultures aren’t ready. That’s why we wrote this book. Because we have time now to engage each other in a meaningful dialogue.
JD: One of the real strengths of your book is that you balance the good with the bad, the opportunities with the risks. What breakthrough are you most excited about, and what danger worries you the most?
AW: Drew Endy, who is an associate professor of bioengineering at Stanford University, once said that “if you can write DNA, you’re no longer limited to ‘what is’ but to what you could make.” Synthetic biology gives us optionality. We will have potential solutions to climate change, to better managing our global supply chains, to ensure we have enough food and potable water. But the solutions will require re-perception. For example, if we can’t curb CO2 emissions through regulation –– which I think will be the case –– then how could we attack the problem in ways that don’t require the world’s largest economies to align? Well, we could deploy edited leaves that can suck more CO2 out of the air and turn it into organic fertilizer for topsoil. This work is already underway. We could tinker with the human genome, adding in more characteristics from Neanderthals, who had thicker skin and weren’t as susceptible to sunburn, harsh winds or very cold temperatures. There are thousands of options we could be exploring. In addition to trust and misinformation, I’m deeply concerned about a looming genetic divide. Some countries, including China, may push forward on subtle genetic enhancements –– while in other countries, like the US, we make certain genetic enhancements commercially available, which would disadvantage lower socioeconomic segments of society.
JD: You point out that synthetic biology will eventually intersect with every industry; there’s virtually no value chain that won’t have to be reimagined. At the same time, you note that we’re perhaps a decade or more away from this technology having its widest impact. Why should a firm like Fidelity start thinking about synthetic biology now?
AW: That’s exactly what I plan to talk about in our upcoming session. Believe it or not, there are several reasons why a company like Fidelity should be tracking synthetic biology. One key area: what happens if todays’ 18-year-olds wind up living to 108 or older? How will retirement savings need to change? What if people live longer lives and won’t retire? What does succession planning in a family-owned business look like when people start to live long, healthy lives, where people get older without actually “aging?” There are some very interesting developments in computer architecture, too. The future of computing could very well include biology, as strange as that sounds. But it implies that DNA could be a near-term cybersecurity threat, and that we’ll have new ways to store information. I can’t wait to share with you some specific examples for Fidelity. I’m going to begin my talk with a short example of how to practice re-perception, which will help you make these connections between synthetic biology and Fidelity more obvious.