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Bring back the woolly mammoth? Steal DNA? The prospects and pitfalls of rewriting life.

A conversation with futurist Amy Webb on the emerging world of synthetic biology.

Amy Webb's latest book is "The Genesis Machine: Our Quest to Rewrite Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology."Future Today Institute

Now that it’s given us mRNA vaccines for COVID-19, can biotechnology also be a game-changer for other pressing challenges, like global warming, hunger, and future pandemics that might be worse? At the same time, where should we draw the line between ethical and unacceptable upgrades to our basic biology? Who should be allowed to own and access genetic data?

These are among the questions that preoccupy Amy Webb, the CEO of the Future Today Institute and professor at the NYU Stern School of Business. She argues that everyone — you, me, the government — ought to be thinking carefully about the potential for biotechnology to create opportunities and threats that could change society to an extent that’s not widely recognized. We can’t afford to let scientists or the market dictate the course of innovation.


After more than a decade studying artificial intelligence, Webb shifted her sights to the links between biology and technology, generally described as synthetic biology, in part because she observed Big Tech companies becoming deeply invested in it. She and geneticist Andrew Hessel are coauthors of a new book, “The Genesis Machine: Our Quest to Rewrite Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology.” It does an admirable job of staying clear of both hype and fearmongering, and I wanted to ask Webb why she sees such a wide range of possible outcomes. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.

Some people are customizing their diets based on what they learn from DNA tests. Is the biological age already upon us?

For around three decades, we’ve been making progress on the technologies that are shaping the biological age. I think we entered it officially when the first in vitro fertilization treatment was completed successfully in 1978.

You can sequence your full genome now for less than the cost of a pair of Nike Air Jordans. However, a good question is what would compel somebody to give up their DNA to help them figure out what food to eat or when to drink what. DNA-based nutrition analysis can be entertaining, like horoscope-based science. Still, you shouldn’t make any life choices based on it.


How are you defining synthetic biology in the book?

The bare-bones definition is: Synthetic biology is the application of science to improve or, in some cases, redesign life to have new or better purposes. It’s a field of science that combines engineering, computer science, biology, and design.

I want to put a footnote here and say this is not about designer babies.

Do you mean synthetic biology is not only about designer babies?

Yes. I think anytime we talk about genome editing or reprogramming life, people immediately leap to designer babies. But synthetic biology is about making different types of improvements to different types of living organisms.

This includes creating new life.

There’s research being done on minimum viable genomes to understand how the different components work and why. Another field is trying to clone or re-create the DNA of animals that are extinct.

I take it you’re talking about resurrecting animals like the woolly mammoth. Do you think it’s possible?

Lots of genomes are being decoded. George Church, a preeminent geneticist, is working on a version of the woolly mammoth. A couple of days ago some scientists figured out the genome of the numbat, a relative of the extinct Tasmanian tiger. Sequencing technology has gotten better, and we have DNA samples. And so we’re able to clone genomes, and this potentially could lead to resurrecting species.


The goal isn’t to create a zoo filled with formerly extinct animals. It’s mostly an effort to increase biodiversity, which has been plummeting, and possibly find new opportunities to deal with climate change. Part of this woolly mammoth project is about rewilding the very northern reaches of the planet, where enormous animals used to stomp around and compact the permafrost layer, which helps to keep greenhouse gases from escaping it.

Can changing the environment be risky?

Engineering biology raises questions about unpredictability. In some limited cases, there are on and off switches that can be coded into genomes. But it can be much more challenging to program an off switch for a complex organism in the wild than for a cell in a lab. Introducing something new into the environment may have downstream impacts that we didn’t consider initially.

Many people are understandably worried about engineered viruses. Are there any circumstances where we should root for scientists to create new virus genomes?

The best way to think of a virus is that a virus is just a container for code. In a way, it’s like a USB stick: It’s a container that can carry code that’s malicious, benign, or great. Right now, we are dealing with a deadly pathogenic virus. But there’s research underway looking at engineering viruses to fight particular types of cancer and other viruses. If we can confront deadly pathogens more precisely at a code level, what does that potentially give us? More control and better options. Right now, there’s no precise way to mitigate a lot of the challenging viruses or cancers.


How can gene editing meet the challenges of global warming and food scarcity?

I think this is probably a little bit further off. Let’s start with carbon dioxide. We have too much of it right now. But what if there was a way to engineer a leaf that could suck up 10 times more CO2 than, let’s say, the average existing leaf, and it created organic fertilizer that doesn’t cause any problems with our topsoil?

Or think about externalities that we can’t control at the moment, like extreme weather events that put our food production and water supply in jeopardy. We might be able to use some of this technology to engineer better plants, like corn. I grew up outside of Chicago, where corn takes up a ton of space, and a cornstalk only has three to four ears of corn growing on it. What if we could engineer corn to be three feet taller, have 20 or 30 ears of corn, and require the same resources as our current cornstalks? Then we can do that type of farming in a fraction of the amount of space — potentially indoors in a giant warehouse where you could control the temperature, humidity, and the amount of water. If you have that level of control, you don’t need to use pesticides with chemicals that people are concerned about.


How can a diverse world reach a shared understanding of what the limits of synthetic biology should be?

One way to do that is to make sure more voices are a part of the conversation. One of the issues that we highlight in the book is that many of the editorial boards of core scientific journals are fairly homogenous. For various reasons, we also don’t see enough people of color represented in the existing genetic databases. If we’re trying to optimize the future for everyone, we need more diversity and must involve more people in the conversation earlier on.

What if bad actors get their hands on powerful gene-editing technologies that are cheap and easy to use?

During the World Economic Forum, a collective of people near Davos picked up detritus, like forks and napkins, and claimed to have scraped off the DNA of global leaders, including Angela Merkel and Donald Trump. They said they would auction it to the highest bidder. We’re at a point where DNA can be scraped off discarded items and used to try to piece together some form of a genome. Doing so would be problematic. After all, it’s illegal to pluck a hair off of somebody’s head to try to scrape their DNA from it. But in the future, if a bad actor works hard enough, it’s plausible they could use DNA to invent an ailment intended for just one person.

Given all the possibilities, I completely understand why Emmanuel Macron recently refused a nasal swab when visiting Vladimir Putin in Russia.

Evan Selinger is a professor of philosophy at the Rochester Institute of Technology and an affiliate scholar at Northeastern University’s Center for Law, Innovation, and Creativity. Follow him on Twitter @evanselinger.