What if humans could make skin glow, enhance eyesight to super-human levels, render Mars habitable for colonization, or dramatically increase the mind's ability to tap its full potential? It would be a very strange world, indeed. But, that future world may not be so far away if Cambrian Genomics, a bio-hacking company started by Austen Heinz, has its way.
Right now it costs $2.2 billion to print human DNA. But Heinz says he's found a way to bio-hack on the cheap, which means the technology could spread democratically to the masses, instead of being concentrated in the hands of the rich and powerful.
In a recent Solve for X presentation titled "Democratizing Creation: 3D Printer for Living Things," Heinz discussed Cambrian Genomics' DNA printing process.
Heinz and his fellow researchers separate DNA strands from the microarray (biochips). They attach each strand to its very own bead, where they replicate it 100,000 times. Next, they attach the beads to a glass surface, and optically sequence them—one color for each of the four letters in a DNA sequence. In this way, they are able to read out the sequence, and pick those with the highest quality score.
Cambrian Genomics then uses a laser printer to retrieve the DNA sequences. Using laser light, Heinz is able to quickly read one billion strands; find and print the correct ones; and then insert them into cells. In this way, they create a “print button for biology.”
Heinz envisions a variety of applications that would make the living world around us, in his words, “synthetic, better and improved.” He mentions personalized medical applications as an area of particular interest, as well as the printing of new creatures. And according to Kim-Mai Cutler at TechCrunch, he's prone to making "off-hand comments about a not-too-distant future where the technology’s he’s developing could help people design humans or help gay couples have their own genuine biological children by mixing and matching their DNA in software."
No word yet on exactly when (or even if) people can expect to use this technology, or how extensive Cambrian Genomics' DNA hacking will be. And with the good surely comes the bad. What would stop some headcase from coding and printing the DNA of an infectious disease and unleashing it on a population?
A YouTube user asked Heinz about this biohazard liability, wondering if there should be regulations governing DNA printing, prompting Heinz to reply:
“All harmful DNA sequences are available to the public online. We compare incoming orders with all known viruses and bacteria and simply don't print harmful sequences. Of course there are exemptions for certain research groups such as the CDC who need to study dangerous sequences to remediate outbreaks. There is an active community surrounding the security aspects of Synthetic Biology i.e. ICLS/BGI/IASB Meeting in Hong Kong March 7-8. Members of the FBI and Interpol will be in attendance.”
I'd be incredibly surprised if some bill isn't already being written to regulate bio-hacking. And one can almost hear the chorus of religious fundamentalists, especially American evangelicals, warming up for holy battle.
Whatever the outcome, Cambrian Genomics is taking us one step closer to a strange new world.