Notes from the Valley: Meet the bio-hackers

Published 14 February 2013 06:51, Updated 10 April 2013 07:32

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“We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” These words greet visitors to the Founders Fund website, one of Silicon Valley’s most prominent investment firms, and some people are asking whether Silicon Valley really is innovating any more. The root cause seems to repetitive social-mobile-local-app-for-sharing-what-I-had-for-lunch launches. However, I believe we are witnessing the beginning of the next great revolution: the world of synthetic biology.

The field of genetics has now advanced to the point where we can apply actual engineering. No longer are we content with simply discovering and manipulating DNA; we are able to design and engineer completely new forms of life. From scratch. It’s just like software engineering, except the software is not binary code but DNA and the hardware is not a set of semiconductors but a cell. In fact, several leading engineers behind today’s internet have already migrated to the field. Don’t take this to mean innovation in web and mobile software is dead. But if I was a student going to university again today I would be studying biology, not software engineering.

Imagine a new form of algae that extracts carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and poops out biofuel. Or bacteria that can extract valuable metals such as magnesium from seawater, giving rise to a new form of mining that doesn’t damage the earth. Or synthetic vat-grown human organs solving the waiting list for transplant patients. How about modifying yeast cells to produce the vital anti-malaria drug artemisinin, instead of relying on the expensively harvested wormwood tree of east Asia? Dare we consider growing a house or a building, or even terraforming a planet? These ideas no longer seem beyond reach. In fact they are all being actively worked on by synthetic biology companies and research labs in Silicon Valley, Boston and elsewhere. We are probably still five to 10 years away from commercialisation of even the simplest of these projects, but the revolution is under way.

Forget the image of scientists in white lab coats armed with pipettes and test tubes. The bio-hackers of today look strangely like computer hackers, hunched in front of keyboards. Thanks to companies like Transcriptic, the “wet work” of bioengineering can be completely outsourced. Bioengineers come up with an idea for a new organism, write the DNA code on a computer and hit print. Literally. Cambrian Genomics has built a prototype DNA laser printer. (Disclosure: I am an investor in Cambrian Genomics and Transcriptic.) This is not a metaphor; it prints actual DNA that can be inserted into a cell. Synthetic biology infrastructure is currently being built just like semiconductor infrastructure that was built back in the ’60s and ’70s.

Ryan Junee is a serial entrepreneur and investor. Originally from Australia, he has spent the past nine years living and breathing Silicon Valley.