3D Printing

Hacking Life

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Austen Heinz

Austen Heinz is founder and CEO of Cambrian Genomics, a company that does genomic sequencing and can "laser print" custom DNA. The implications of such technology could be profound, theoretically allowing people to design new, more efficient forms of animal life-if opponents of genetic modification don't get in the way. In February, Reason TV's Zach Weissmueller spoke with Heinz about his startup. To see more of the interview, click here or see below.

Q: What exactly is the product?

A: With [the 3D printing company] MakerBot, you'd print out, say, a plastic dinosaur. With Cambrian, the idea is eventually you'd be able to print out your own little dinosaur that actually walks across the table.

Q: Where are you in that development process now? What do you produce here in this laboratory?

A: Right now we produce DNA for the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world.

Q: Your company has dramatically brought the price point [of creating DNA] down.

A: It's directly related to a phenomenon I think everyone has heard of, which is DNA sequencing. Fifteen years ago, no one got their DNA sequenced because it cost $6 billion. Now that can be done by a machine that can read millions or billions of DNA strands at a time. We simply leveraged sequencing technology to reduce the price of making or writing DNA.

Q: How do you see 3D printing shifting the way science is done in America?

A: Virtualization is going to take off. You'll be able to go from idea to finished product without ever touching anything physical. That's not how things work now. You go to an academic lab, it's miserable. They're spending 90 percent of their time cutting and pasting DNA from different creatures they collect from across the country. We want that to be 95 percent design analysis and 5 percent manual work—if there's any manual work.

Q: How do you feel about the regulatory environment for genetically modified organisms [GMOs] and the biotech space?

A: In the United States, we're pretty open on plants but we're pretty locked down on people. You go to Europe and it's the opposite. In the U.K. they're having three-parent babies. In the near future we're going to have lots of humans walking around Europe who are genetically modified. What's also funny is that many of those people are going to be part of anti-GMO organizations. So you'll have a genetically modified organism protesting the existence of genetically modified organisms.

In time we'll likely need to print out and fix our DNA. The issue with that is, unless you have an identical twin, your DNA is unique. And it's wrong. Everyone will need to be fixed at some point [because] you'll get cancer or some other disease. How do we do that with the current regulatory environment? The [Food and Drug Administration] doesn't approve things one-off. They'll approve a small molecule that you can give to everyone on earth. But everyone's unique and that molecule won't work. It's got to be very specific [to the] individual. Now we have these tools that are very precise. With this machine we can sequence a whole genome in a single run, all of your letters. With the machine in the other room, we can print out all of the letters. That power never existed before. So regulation on the medical side of things is going to need to catch up to that.

Q: What excites you most about this technology?

A: We're getting really close to the point where we can not only know the code of everything that's alive on the planet, but could change it.

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49 responses to “Hacking Life

  1. Am I the only one worried about monsters from the id?

    1. No, there are plenty of statists to keep you company. And since they know better than you, you won’t like it.

      1. Monsters from the superego, as it were.

  2. “In the United States, we’re pretty open on plants but we’re pretty locked down on people. You go to Europe and it’s the opposite. In the U.K. they’re having three-parent babies. In the near future we’re going to have lots of humans walking around Europe who are genetically modified.”

    That’s probably a reflection of our apparent political biases.

    In Europe they’re irrational about “frankenfoods” largely as a result of American dominance in agriculture. European farmers have been scared of American agriculture flooding European markets for decades.

    Anyone else remember when the French farmers blocked off access to Euro Disney?

    http://tinyurl.com/kvpvuar

    In the U.S., we’ve been squeamish about science, medicine, and reproduction since…as long as anyone can remember.

    I’ve always thought the debate over whether being gay was genetic or a choice was silly–the only people who really cared were religious fundamentalists who seem to think that God wouldn’t do something like that to an innocent baby. As if a genetic component were a necessary precondition for protecting someone against government discrimination?

    That’s going to seem like child’s play if lesbian and gay…couples, triples, and quadruples decide to pool their genes and design themselves a baby–that’s genetically predisposed to being gay. We may live to see the day when being gay is both genetic and a choice you check off on an order form.

    1. To me, the idea of designing a baby for any other purpose than maximizing the potential health and happiness of the child is selfish and immoral. Purposely picking the sexuality of the child seems to fall outside of that constraint along with other superficial traits like hair/skin color.

      1. Traditionally people have had babies for the purpose of free farm labor.

        Probably the most important reason why the birth rate in the developing world is positively correlated with the infant mortality rate is because children are the answer to the question of how you’ll finance your retirement in your old age.

        People have children for their own reasons. We typically want a child that’s like us. We’re talking biological imperative, here. Evolution is a struggle to pass on our genes. If these people want to do that, then I don’t see why they shouldn’t be allowed to do so.

        I think there may be a dangerous precedent in the government getting involved in deciding what individuals can and can’t do. I can imagine the government, for instance, to start requiring everyone to submit their intended offspring for screening. Sorry, your child has this or that undesirable quality. Sorry, that child wouldn’t be happy as a [insert variance].

        I don’t want the government making calls like that on…anything.

        1. I agree. What I consider a moral decision and what I think the government should get involved are separate things.

          1. Yeah, I agree that there’s a big difference between questions of morality and questions of law.

        2. How short a step is it from prohibiting “you can’t do that” to mandating “you have to do this”?

          Once they can regulate something, they can regulate it as they see fit.

          To skip screening, you’ll probably have to pay a penaltax!

          1. Ken Shultz|5.25.15 @ 10:48AM|#
            “How short a step is it from prohibiting “you can’t do that” to mandating “you have to do this”?”

            Bout the same as ‘you can’t hire based on race’ to ‘you must hire based on race’.

            1. Yeah, it’s like the commerce clause.

              The government can regulate interstate commerce so that wheat farmers can grow wheat profitably.

              Somehow, that came to mean that wheat farmers couldn’t grow wheat on their own farms for their own consumption without the government’s permission.

              https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wickard_v._Filburn #Opinion_of_the_Court

              1. Ken Shultz|5.25.15 @ 11:40AM|#
                “Yeah, it’s like the commerce clause.”

                I hesitate to imagine what the gov’t will ruin, ’cause “net neutrality!”.

          2. Mandating that you must do something is nothing really new. If you’re trying to earn a living, there are all sorts of things you must do to comply with the state.

            1. Yeah, mandating isn’t new, but they can mandate new things.

              If they started mandating that people submit their fetuses for genetic testing that would be something new.

              And I’m sure they would do it at first with the best of intentions. What more noble intention could there be than preventing or fixing genetic problems in babies?

              But is there any control mechanism that the government would never exploit?

              The reason the government didn’t monitor all of our electronic communications in the past was because it wasn’t technically possible to do so. Once it became possible to do so, they did it.

              We should argue to people that if they’re worried about individuals exploiting this technology, then they’re barking up the wrong tree. Giving the government the ability to regulate this sort of thing is where the danger is–it opens the door to all sorts of potential abuse. If there’s a law needed, it’s to protect the individual’s right to make choices for themselves. That’s basically what I’m trying to say.

          3. And with this issue, “for teh childrenz!!!11” is baked right in. It’s too perfect for the control freaks to NOT do something.

    2. I’ve always thought the debate over whether being gay was genetic or a choice was silly–the only people who really cared were religious fundamentalists

      You have that totally fucking backwards.

      1. I don’t think so.

        If gay people became interested in that question, it was only to counter the argument coming from the religious right.

        They seemed to think that equal protection only applied to blacks, women, etc. because being one of those groups was genetic rather than a choice, and the religious right was convinced in their bones that God wouldn’t create someone pre-programmed to sin like that. How can he judge them for something he programmed them to do?

        Having our right recognized, however, has little to do with whether something is genetic. Neither free speech nor gun rights have a genetic component. Being a Baptist isn’t genetic either. Meanwhile, being free to make choices for yourself is what rights are all about anyway.

        A right is a right to make a choice for yourself. The idea that the government shouldn’t protect one because it’s a choice (rather than genetic) is ridiculous.

        1. Good to see you on the same side as the religious fundamentalists, Ken.

          1. Huh?!

            You’re kidding, right?

            1. Not at all. You just made the case that homosexuality is behavioral and cultural, like religion or gun rights, rather than an innate biological identity.

              I’m still not buying that the people arguing that homosexuality is genetic don’t feel really strongly about it. They took the older progressive “disease model” that was used to oppress them for so long and recast it as “genetic identity” for political purposes.

              1. SIV|5.25.15 @ 4:00PM|#
                “Not at all. You just made the case that homosexuality is behavioral and cultural, like religion or gun rights, rather than an innate biological identity.”

                Ken didn’t even bother to make a comment on that one way or the other; he simply said it was irrelevant.
                Are you really that stupid, or are you willfully misreading what he wrote?

                1. Do you agree that “the only people who really care if homosexuality is a choice or genetic” are religious fundamentalists?

                  Then atheists, gays, progressives etc. do not really care about this issue. They wouldn’t be inclined to use it as a political litmus test, consider it a thought crime, to be “scientifically wrong” or want to excommunicate anyone from the in-group who believed it to be a choice. Believing in homosexuality as an innate identity, determined at birth (or before) is dogma among most* of these people.

                  Ken disagrees with the fundies on whether government should discriminate on equally recognizing same-sex marriage but he seems to be in agreement with them on the insignificance of being firmly and exclusively in the “choice or not”: camp.

                  (*There is a subset of gays who believe it is a choice)

                  1. The gay rights people I’ve read and talked to, etc. see the genetic vs. behavioral debate as a fundie thing for a couple of reasons:

                    1) The fundies say they shouldn’t be given the same protections as blacks and women because being gay isn’t genetic.

                    2) There is some historic baggage with being gay being seen as a choice or behavioral–because gay rights people don’t want gay being seen as a psychological problem or as a symptom of child abuse, which is how a lot of cultural conservative paint it.

                    Both of these takes are reactionary to what the cultural conservatives are saying/have said about them.

                    Like I said, “If gay people became interested in that question, it was only to counter the argument coming from the religious right.”

                    These aren’t arguments that the gay rights people are pushing of their own accord–they’re counter-arguments to what’s been pushed by the cultural conservatives.

                    1. That’s some pretty bizarre projection your gay rights sources have there.

                      1) The fundies say they shouldn’t be given the same protections as blacks and women because being gay isn’t genetic.

                      Ya got a cite on that? Other than the definitive gold standard of “fundies say”.
                      Preferably one that goes back to before the “homosexuality is genetic: the science is settled” campaign. Because that might better illustrate who is reacting to who.

                      Without going through the whole evolution of what is now known as “cultural conservatism” you can date it to opposition to the ERA and Roe v Wade. To the extent “teh gaiz” comes in before the whole marriage equality thing it was a reaction to sex education in the public schools. The fundies didn’t insist schools teach that homosexuality is abnormal and wrong, their involvement came in response to the government using compulsory education to teach that it is perfectly normal, acceptable and morally equivalent to any other sexual , social and family relationships. Just like there was no fundie push for “abstinence education” except as a reaction to the whole condom/banana and Surgeon General Speaks Out on Masturbation stuff. The reaction was predictably strong when the schools began pushing this stuff down to middle and elementary school.

                    2. The animus against entitling gays under the protection civil rights laws goes back to resistance to the end of segregation and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Social conservatives didn’t like the CRA, and they didn’t think equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment extends to gays either.

                      If anything was a reaction to sex education in public schools, it was prayer, but even that, like the attempt to get intelligent design taught in public schools, was a reaction against teaching evolution. I’m right with the social conservatives on the issue that they shouldn’t be forced to pay taxes to teach people things that violate their religious convictions.

                      Regardless of where opposition to gay rights comes from, the government shouldn’t be violating the rights of gay people–just like gay people shouldn’t be using the government to compel Christians to violate their religious convictions.

                    3. The fact that gay people have reacted to historic arguments against them–such as that they’re a product of child abuse or psychological problems and that their rights shouldn’t be protected from government discrimination because being gay, supposedly, isn’t genetic–by countering both arguments is just a point of interest to me.

                      It seems to me that you’re just getting bent out of shape because I’m blaming social conservatives for something. I don’t really care about social conservatives–I think social conservatives mostly suck because they’re historically so enthusiastic about using the government to inflict their beliefs on the rest of us. I also happen to think gay rights people suck just as much when they do the same thing–and for the same reason. I don’t care about social conservatives, and I don’t care about gay rights activists either.

                      I just care about their rights. Those are my rights, too, and there are other rights of mine that I care about. If the government can decide who we can’t marry or that we have to bake cakes for gay weddings, what else can they decide?

              2. I suspect there are both genetic predispositions and and behavioral factors.

                But whether the government should protect the rights of gay people not to be discriminated against by government shouldn’t depend on whether being gay is genetic–just like our rights to be a gun owner, speak freely, or enjoy freedom of religion, etc. doesn’t depend on those rights having a genetic component either. The question isn’t whether the government is discriminating against people because of their genes. The question should be whether the government is discriminating against people.

                The government has no business discriminating against cannabis smokers or motorcycle riders either.

                Both sides of the spectrum are being hypocritical on genetics. The right will claim that being black or a woman shouldn’t entitle those people to any special treatment, on the one hand, and on the other hand, they’re saying that being gay shouldn’t be protected from government discrimination because it doesn’t have a genetic basis like being female or black. The liberal left is saying that people shouldn’t be entitled to any special privileges becasue of genetic traits like being white or male–but then they promote special treatment for genetic traits like being black or female.

                1. To my eye, libertarians who stand up for the right of gay people not to be discriminated against by the government–regardless of whether being gay is genetic–and libertarians who, likewise, also stand up for the right of fundamentalist Christian individuals to the free exercise of their religious rights–even if that means discriminating against gay people in their private lives–are the only ones who are being consistent. And we’re not really pro-gay or pro-fundamentalist Christianity. We’re just pro-individual rights regardless of whether you’re gay or a fundamentalist Christian.

                  1. I find the question of whether homosexuality is genetic or something else (not necessarily choice, but perhaps environmental or just a predisposition of some individuals) interesting for complete non-political reasons. Because historically, there have been societies with widespread homosexual practices. It was embedded into the culture.

                    The whole is it genetic or not…it’s purely political with the answer of yes being a product of what is more convenient. Gay rights activists and the left accept it as gospel because of that. It’s a good response to the Christian right.

                    But I don’t believe they have, as of yet, identified an actual gene that causes sexual preference.

                    And it’s 100% true that it shouldn’t matter. The government has no place in regulating victimless behavior.

  3. You know who else wanted to develop a genetically modified group of super humans?…

    1. Bela Lugosi in that Ed Wood movie?

    2. Professor Farnsworth?

    3. Who doesn’t?

  4. With this machine we can sequence a whole genome in a single run, all of your letters. With the machine in the other room, we can print out all of the letters. That power never existed before. So regulation on the medical side of things is going to need to catch up to that.

    Next stop, Gattaca!

    /clutching pearls

  5. OT, but there seems to be a Polish joke buried in here:
    “Polish president concedes election defeat to right-wing opponent”
    […]
    ” a right-wing party that mixes traditional national values like Catholicism with calls for a stronger state role in the economy. ”
    http://www.foxnews.com/world/2…..-opponent/

    Nothing says “right wing” more than a desire for gov’t intervention!

    1. In most places, conservative/leftist has nothing to do with statism. It historically hasn’t been the question up for debate. It’s usually how they want the government to intervene and run society rather than the instruments of power up for debate across Europe. The Enlightenment faded in Europe with the introduction of Marxism, and I don’t think it ever took hold in Poland.

      America is the last Western country that really still has that argument, from what I observe. And even here libertarians are a fringe element with most conservatives only paying lipservice.

      Some of the countries that actually abide by small government rhetoric are the ones touched by colonialism where the Enlightenment ideas came in through an educated elite/whites, but didn’t degrade into chaos. Places like Singapore and Hong Kong.

      1. I simply do not understand your post.
        Can you explain why the party mentioned in the article is defined as “right wing”?

  6. Um, SIV is correct.

    Most gay people will say that it is not a choice, and it’s not because religious fundamentalists came up with the idea that it was. It’s because if something isn’t a choice then it isn’t a *sin*.
    It really relates to racism, because people can’t control the color of their skin and thus don’t *deserve* to be hated for it. If people likewise can’t control who they are sexually attracted to, they likewise can’t be morally culpable for it.

    I think the whole issue of is it innate or chosen traces it’s origins back to the civil rights movement and was adopted by the gay rights movement.

    Now, personally there does seem to be plenty of evidence it is innate, but I doubt that it is *genetic*. It’s probably something set by early childhood experiences, maybe even in-utero hormonal influences.

    1. “If people likewise can’t control who they are sexually attracted to, they likewise can’t be morally culpable for it.”

      You certainly refuted everyone who says it’s a sin to be sexually tempted by people of the same sex!

      1. Can you explain why it is a sin, beyond something like god said so? And can you find anything inherent about homosexual relationships that many straight people also aren’t guilty of? I’m going to guess no.

        Regardless of whether it is a choice or genetic or some other factor, it changes nothing about the morality of it.

        The choice vs genetic argument is poor and always has been. It’s an appeal to emotion. No one would have sympathy for someone who claimed they couldn’t help being attracted to children. The difference is really that the two are in no way moral equivalents.

        1. “Can you explain why it is a sin, beyond something like god said so?”

          Dumbass, I just said it *wasn’t* a sin to be tempted.

          If the same-sex “marriage” cause is so righteous and just, why do its advocates feel obliged to resort to falsehoods?

          1. No, you were obviously saying that the sin is the acting on the impulse. And that the argument above (which he wasn’t actually making – he was explaining the thought process and origin of the argument) was bunk.

            Why do you dodge questions when they’re inconvenient for your narrative?

            The only argument you have is an appeal to tradition (homosexuality) and butchered science (abortion).

            If the same-sex “marriage” cause is so righteous and just, why do its advocates feel obliged to resort to falsehoods?

            As opposed to fairy tales…

    2. HazelMeade|5.25.15 @ 6:36PM|#
      “Um, SIV is correct.”

      Did SIV get something right somewhere? Well, blind skwerrilz and all that.
      SIV’s response to my comment was this:
      SIV|5.25.15 @ 6:29PM|#
      “Do you agree that “the only people who really care if homosexuality is a choice or genetic” are religious fundamentalists?”
      What a fucking idiot! I mentioned that he had ignored Ken’s point and he responds by ignoring mine. What a fucking idiot!

  7. A: Right now we produce DNA for the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world.

    Henrietta Lacks has been making whole cells for pretty much every one of the worlds’ largest pharmaceutical companies and she’s been dead for over 60 yrs.

    Until Monsanto or Roche or somebody buys their fantastic revolutionary imagine-ware technology can we stop hearing about Cambrian?

    As it stands, they have less than half a dozen patents in a field only slightly less rife with patent abuse than software engineering and are able to do the biological equivalent of sell lemonade.

  8. Google pay 97$ per hour my last pay check was $8500 working 1o hours a week online. My younger brother friend has been averaging 12k for months now and he works about 22 hours a week. I cant believe how easy it was once I tried it out.
    This is wha- I do…… ?????? http://www.www.netjob80.com

  9. Google pay 97$ per hour my last pay check was $8500 working 1o hours a week online. My younger brother friend has been averaging 12k for months now and he works about 22 hours a week. I cant believe how easy it was once I tried it out.
    This is wha- I do…… ?????? http://www.www.netjob80.com

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