Bio-Hackers, Get Ready

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When I speak to technical founders, they often look back with fondness to days of tinkering with a Commodore 64 or Hypercard.

But perhaps tomorrow’s founders will experiment with a very different kind of code — the genetic code that underlies how everything from one-celled organisms to humans develop and behave.

A pair of companies in San Francisco’s SOMA neighborhood and Tel Aviv are positioning themselves as the “Wintel” of the bio-hacking era. One company, called Genome Compiler, builds software for designing synthetic life forms, while the other, Cambrian Genomics, is experimenting with ways to cheaply laser print DNA.

Like the old Microsoft-Intel relationship of the PC era, they believe they have the symbiotic relationship necessary to usher in a new era where anybody can inexpensively create their own life forms. Genome Compiler is backed with $3 million in funding, including $2 million from Autodesk. Cambrian is funded by Founders Fund, Felicis Ventures and Draper Associates.

“We are democratizing creation,” said Genome Compiler co-founder Omri Amirav-Drory. “Cells are nothing more than a computer, running a program and the program is the genetic code. The code is DNA. The software are the chromosomes. The hardware is the wetware.”

Using Drory’s software, a person can load up existing sequences for different life forms like plants and then manipulate them by inserting or taking out various genes. It corrects the code for basic errors like not having three codes for an amino acid or having a stop and a start code in the wrong place.

“Wouldn’t it be nice in the future if someone could just load up a tree’s genetic code, drag another app from a file and make it glow in the dark?” said Amirav-Drory, who was a post-doc at Stanford University after completing a Ph.D. in biochemistry at Tel Aviv University in Israel.

In theory they could eventually build an app store where a Genome Compiler user could buy access to genetic code that might make a plant cells like a banana. One Kickstarter project which I wrote about last month is already using the software to create a glow-in-the-dark plant. The seemingly far-fetched aspiration is to eventually replace street lights with the more renewable solution of glowing trees.

Environmental considerations were what originally drew Amirav-Drory toward starting Genome Compiler.

“We live in a civilization that is totally dependent on finite resources like oil and coal to produce everything around us…. It’s unsustainable and dangerous. What will our children have?” he said in a talk at the Las Vegas Downtown Project earlier this year. “We should had look at life — living things have been around for at least 4 billion years. They can produce everything we get from fossil fuels.”

He hopes that people will use Genome Compiler to create bacteria or plants that could solve energy sustainability issues. Drory says the Genome Compiler software is free and that he has a little more than 3,000 users. He said a person would probably need at least a bachelor’s degree in a biology-related field to effectively used Genome Compiler.

One you’ve designed and the compiled the genetic code, however, you’ve got to print it and insert it into existing cells.

That’s where Cambrian Genomics comes in. While Amirav-Drory is a bit more buttoned-down, Cambrian’s CEO Austen Heinz is the rebel.

While his day-to-day considerations are about running his startup and perfecting techniques like laser pulse catapulting strands of DNA, he’ll make 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.

“Our pricing is designed to change behavior,” Heinz said. “Every biology lab in the world will become more virtualized. They’ll design code on a computer and then print out DNA. A biologist on a small budget should be able to design 50,000 different constructs at a time.”

Heinz didn’t offer more details on current pricing though, except to say that he has some early paying clients.

While he does use genome sequencers that you can buy from companies like Illumina, he’s also built his own sequencer that allows you to recover the underlying DNA instead of destroying it in the sequencing process. Then he uses an older technique called laser-pulse catapulting to eject copies of DNA. A client can then use time-tested and older techniques like PCR (Polymerase chain reaction) to copy this new synthetic DNA and then insert it into cells.

The advantage of using DNA laser printing over more conventional approaches is that the error rate should be a lot lower.

“Cameras, lasers, computers and software are reliable,” he said. “Those things can all break. But if anything breaks, it’s easy for us to change the part or to just fix it and get it back up and running. Their failure modes are predictable.”

Both Genome Compiler and Cambrian Genomics tie into a broader trend affecting the entire field around genetic data. Sequencing costs are falling faster than Moore’s Law, and so there are a host of companies and VCs that are betting that this new wealth of data could lend itself to all sorts of new innovations around software meeting genetic code.

“Sequencing a whole human genome cost $3 billion and took 15 years to complete just 10 years ago,” said Amirav-Drory. “Today you can do it in an afternoon for a few thousand dollars. More and more, we’re digitizing biology. We’re reading the genome and putting it in a computer.”

When he started his post-doctoral fellowship, it was $2 per base pair to print DNA. But by the time he left four years later, it had fallen by about 75 percent to 25 cents a pair.

Amirav-Drory is hoping that these lower costs will lead to all sorts of new kinds of bacteria or plants to could be used to solve the world’s ecological problems.

“The best thing about living things is that they can scale to meet the magnitude of our challenges,” he said in a recent talk.

But what about the regulatory concerns around unleashing a whole new host of synthetic bacteria and life forms into the environment?

As of now, projects like the Kickstarter glowing plant are covered by one or more of three U.S. regulatory agencies. The FDA would oversee anything digestible while the USDA and the EPA would look for organisms that would have properties of pests and could potentially crowd out more natural, beneficial plants or animals. Cambrian and other DNA printing companies already screen out incoming orders for ones that contain harmful sequences from the known library of viruses and bacteria.

It is a brave new world, though.