Bull Session

Writing Human Code

June 2, 2016          

Episode Summary

On this episode of The Digital Life, we discuss the plan to create a complete artificial human genome. A few weeks ago, scientists, entrepreneurs, and government officials met in a closed door meeting at Harvard University at an event intended to create interest and momentum around the follow-up to the Human Genome Project — a public / private collaboration to synthesize a human genome.

Over the past decade, the technology for encoding genes has improved at a fantastic rate. Since the early 2000s, the cost has dropped from four dollars to just three cents per base pair. However, while big pharma and big agriculture currently synthesize gene sequences for products including biologic drugs and GMO plants, these strands of genetic material are usually only a few thousand letters in length. Contrast that with the 6 billion letters needed for the human genome, and we can begin to see the ambition of this new proposed endeavor. In this episode, we explore some of the arguments in favor of and against writing human code.

Ethical Questions Loom Over Efforts to Make a Human Genome from Scratch

Welcome to episode 158 of The Digital Life, the show about our adventures in the world of design and technology. I’m your host Jon Follett and with me is founder and co-host Dirk Knemeyer.

Greetings, Jon.

For our podcast today, we’re going to discuss the recently revealed plan to fabricate a human genome from scratch. A few weeks ago, about 150 scientists, entrepreneurs, and government officials met behind closed doors at Harvard to discuss what is to be the followup to the Human Genome Project. Its focus is rather than reading the human genome, it’s writing one which is pretty audacious and pretty adventuresome when it comes to a project I think. The event itself was meant to create some interest around this idea and take on this huge task of generating what amounts to six billion letters that make up a human genome and sing that synthesized genome to start up a cell.

Right now, the current state of the art is that we all know that Big Agriculture and Big Pharma are using custom made-to-order gene sequences for various reasons whether it’s modifying plants. You have all that hype and gnashing of teeth over GMO plants, and then also for creating biologics. We know that Big Pharma is creating biologics like insulin for treating diabetes. These strands of DNA that are used to do that, to create the GMO agriculture or biologics, those are relatively short in comparison to a human genome. You’re talking about a couple thousand letters versus six billion. That’s quite a couple orders of magnitude there.

The cost keeps coming down as we all are aware that with advancing technology, the power increases and the cost decreases. Encoding genes is getting cheaper and cheaper and cheaper. In the early 2000s, it was $4 for a base pair and today it’s three cents. It’s more than 100 times. This is the mandate of this, I guess it’s the Human Genome Writing project or whatever they’re going to call it, but it calls into question all sorts of ethical boundaries and aspects that people and society may not be ready for. I’ve seen a number of objections to this project including that perhaps, it would be more productive to try to create the entire genomic sequence for another organism first, not start with the human being. There’s the thought that you could create a human genome and change it. Make a super soldier or somebody who is immune to all viruses, for instance, is a thought that’s been entertained, which then the follow-on thought is “well then, the bad actors are going to try to create super viruses to take out the super soldiers.”

This is the realm of science fiction yesterday is science fact today.

That’s the theme of the show, isn’t it Jon?

I think so. This is the reality of this project, is that it touches on some nerves. Dirk, what’s your initial take on that?

I don’t know, Jon. These things are just inevitable at this point. We’ve mapped the genome, of course we’re going to fabricate a genome. There’s going to be some ethicists that are wringing their hands, but science is well on its way here. I think the general public doesn’t understand enough and so is not going to get religion on trying to rise up against any of this stuff. It’s complicated too by the fact that the people, like our friend George Church, who are behind these projects, their goals are aspirational ones. Their goals are modest and have nothing to do with super soldiers. They have to do with things that you hear. You’re going to shrug and shake your head, say, “Yeah, kind of makes sense. Might as well be doing that.”

It’s only in the realm of the fantastical and A+B=Z that it starts to get a little funky. I think that’s what going to happen one way or the other. Nothing’s going to stop it. This is all just theater for the public from the standpoint of ethics and committees and, “Oh dear, what should we do?” For me, the interesting questions are in this, with what’s done with the human genome along with so many other branches of science and technology that we talk about on the show. Where are we headed? What does it mean “of the human condition?” To me, that’s interesting. The idea of ethically WTF about this. I don’t know. It’s asked and answered like so many things, and it’s coming.

Yeah. I think one of the fears and perhaps the reason why these fantastical scenarios are raised is that as you point out, there is some fear about what the general public, what the backlash or acceptance rate will be because keep in mind, the sequencing, the human genome, cost a couple billion dollars when it was first done and that was largely funded, if not entirely funded, but the US Government. There is a certain amount of healthy respect for public opinion that whether it’s warranted or not, if the science should be able to move forward on its own, ethical guidelines, that’s one position. We do have the questions of research, funding, societal acceptance of each of these small steps forward.

When we’re talking about synthesizing a human genome, this is still way far away from synthesizing a human being from scratch. These are not the same things. They’re not even in the same ranges, but public understand of the science is certainly not to the point where that’s common knowledge.

The public isn’t even paying attention. The media’s not paying attention. The article that lended this conversation was in, what, MIT Technology Review? It wasn’t in The New York Times or The Washington Post. If it was in The New York Times or Washington Post, it’s not front page big headlines people talking about it at the water cooler. This is such inside baseball still at this point.

Yeah. It’s an interesting time for the genomics field because I do think that these sorts of initiatives whether it’s the Human Genome Project or this new writing the human genome, these are the impetus for the science to become commercialized. The Human Genome Project is early 2000s when that was completed, and that’s led to all sorts of advancements in genomic sequencing and thus the testing that you can get done in a lightweight way at 23andme or in a much more comprehensive way via medical providers, labs that provide tests to your hospital. All of that technology was seeded by the Human Genome Project. Without that project, the commercialization probably wouldn’t have happened at that clip and we would be able to pay $1000 for a whole genome sequencing, which is pretty significant.

When we’re talking about writing the human genome, it’s a natural follow-on and it’s also creating, again, the moon shots. Wrong-


Analogy, but it’s a similar very strong initiative that is going to provide the impetus for further commercialization and competition, which ultimately a lot of good things will come out of it. It’s interesting how these projects take shape because at the end of the day, we want them to be able to move forward so that the science can move forward without, I wouldn’t say unimpeded but at least allow this to happen without undue restriction because we know that the outcomes can be quite positive. I think there’s that interesting mix of ethics and discussion going on right now, and even if it is at a low level. It’s not, like you said, front page news. It’s certainly significant enough and it’s going to determine how the science proceeds.

People care more about gorillas being shot in zoos than they do about any of this stuff, which gives you a sense of the level of sophistication that the general public gives to their analysis of world happenings and makes decisions on what’s important and what’s not. Look, the reason that people can rarely see the future clearly is that the way that the future manifests is the product of all of these dynamic systems moving in different ways, not in lock-step by any stretch, each of which in different mechanisms fundamentally changes the way that people see the world and the way that the world reacts to new things.

Where I’m going with this, and tying back into this conversation, is I’ve talked a number of times on the show about humans having bad programming. Let me get into that with more specificity. When we were unsophisticated beings going back, I probably need to know my history of human biology better, but going back many thousands or millions of years, it was important that essential in our programming was drive to procreate, for example. For that to be just this inherently important code in how we behaved as a creature was essential, and it’s what allowed our species to continue and to reach a point of dominance over the rest of the animal kingdom and get to the point today where our ability to think and reason and logic is incredibly evolved and sophisticated.

That code was important for that moment, but in today’s world with the way that we’re able to see the world, the way that we function in societies in the world, that code is garbage code. It’s like if you were looking at the latest and greatest software today, it would be like getting an app that’s totally coded in basic. People would be like, “What the hell are they doing? It’s using this code that is so unsophisticated, such bullshit.” We can’t use that code. We need to be using the latest and greatest code. Human programming is still done in fricking basic. We still have, going back to the show, I don’t know how long it was now, but I talked about male sexual urges and the deleterious impact that those have on other people in the society specifically but then in the society in total. That’s bad fricking programming. That’s a lot of basic code that is still crumming up how we behave and how we function in the world.

My saying this today is going to sound to most people like it’s crazy. It’s going to sound to most people like I’ve gone off my rocker, but as these technologies around the genome progress, as we learn to fabricate the genome, as we learn to fabricate a human being, as we learn to engineer babies, as we learn to reverse and re-engineer children and adults and humans, that’s going to come in the future. That’s a ways down the road. I’m going to tell you right now, at the point that that becomes a reality, all these other things in the world will have changed to the point where people are going to shrug and say, “Yeah, of course we have bad code. Of course we have crummy code. Of course we should be taking advantage of those technologies.”

That stuff today in 2016, or 10 or 15 years ago when I first started talking about this stuff, might sound crazy, but in 20-blabbity blah, decades up the road when this shit is reality, it’s not going to sound crazy at all. The kind of work that’s being done now by people like George Church, by companies like Gen9, by these things the mainstream media are totally ignoring and people are not aware of are going to be the technologies that allow us to evolve beyond our broken basic crappy code that was necessary when we were thoughtless, stupid creatures just trying to battle our way to the top of the animal kingdom. That’s going to all go away and be replaced by something else that is coming from these kinds of technologies, possibly or probably, and the world is going to be ready for it and not only accept it, but embrace it because in the context of our evolution as a species, it simply makes sense.

Right, the present is a beta test. Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com, that’s just one “L” in the “The Digital Life,” and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody, so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening, or afterwards if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter @JonFollett. That’s J-o-n-F-o-l-l-e-t-t, and of course, the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios, which you can check out at goinvo.com. That’s G-o-I-n-v-o.com. Dirk?

Folks, You can follow me on Twitter @DKnemeyer. That’s @D-K-n-e-m-e-y-e-r. Thanks so much for listening.

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