VIENNA, Austria — Say this for Austen Heinz: His vision for the future will either thrill you or leave you fearing for the future of humanity. There’s not really any room in the middle.
In a pair of interviews, on and off the stage at the Pioneers Festival in Vienna today, the CEO of San Francisco-based Cambrian Genomics explained the mission of his company, which is often benignly described as “laser-printing DNA.”
So what does that mean?
“We want to make everything that is alive on the planet,” he explained. “Everything that is alive is not optimal. It can be made better.”
But he doesn’t have plans for replication: “We want to make totally new organisms that have never existed,” he said. “And replace every existing organism with a better one. It just seems obvious that eventually every human will be designed on a computer.”
Lest you think these are the ravings of a mad scientist, or the opening scene of a new sci-fi dystopian thriller, well, it’s not. Heinz is calm and rational in his view. And while his company has not disclosed its total fundraising, it’s backed by such notable Silicon Valley names as Peter Thiel.
The technology at work here is complex, but essentially Cambrian Genomics says it has found a way to dramatically reduce the cost of printing a strand of DNA. Sequencing of the genome is so advanced, Heinz explained, that basically people can take DNA code from libraries and create organic mash-ups, much the way any programmer can pull computer code from code libraries. That new code is then laser printed for a fraction of what it used to cost.
The most notable example of this technology at work was the “glowing plants” campaign on Kickstarter. Using these synthetic biology techniques, the campaign promised to take bioluminescence genes from bacteria and fireflies and insert them into several plants to make them glow in the dark.
The backers raised $484,013 from 8,433 backers. But then Kickstarter responded by changing its rules by banning genetically modified organisms from its platform.
Now Heinz is fighting back. He said on stage that the company will soon launch its own crowd-funding platform for GMOs, called “creature creators.” Cambrian will also help other people create slick videos to promote their synthetic biological creations.
One such project he mentioned on stage was Petomics. The project essentially aims to take genetic material for the odor of bananas and inject it into E. coli bacteria. The modified bacteria would be introduced into pet food and the result would be … poop that smells like bananas.
“It’s a pretty strong smell, too,” Heinz said.
Heinz doesn’t appear to fear the potential backlash such biological tinkering could provoke. For him, there is a simple logic at work at makes such technology inevitable. People are essentially badly designed computers, he said.
“We are running a program that is designed for us to die,” he said. “I think obviously every organism will be designed synthetically. It’s not a stretch to take it to every human and everything that’s alive.”