Hacking Life's Code and Creating New Organisms with 3-D Printed DNA

Q&A With Cambrian Genomics' Austen Heinz


"To think that we can't make organisms that aren't more efficient than existing, I don't think is correct," says Austen Heinz, founder of the biotech startup Cambrian Genomics. "Because nature doesn't have DNA laser printers, and we do."

Reason TV's Zach Weissmueller sat down with Heinz to discuss the ramifications of a technology that dramatically brings down the cost of sequencing and assembling DNA, suddenly making the ability for consumers to create their own organisms an economic reality. Heinz partnered with a company to crowdfund a "glowing plant," which led to a subsequent ban on GMO-related projects on Kickstarter, and he expresses concern with the lagging regulatory structure governing biotech development. But Heinz is undeterred by regulatory and cultural obstacles and foresees a future where consumers can affordably leverage his technology to fix errors in their own DNA or even design their own creatures in the same way that 3-D printing companies like MakerBot allow for custom models.

"[With] MakerBot, you would print out, say, a plastic dinosaur. With Cambrian, the idea is that eventually you'll be able to print out your own little dinosaur that actually walks across the table," says Heinz. "Everything around us is just code. Wouldn't it be great if we could just snap our fingers and just re-imagine the world around us, where everything is programmable, everthing is re-writeable?"

Approximately 10 minutes. Produced by Zach Weissmueller. Camera by Justin Monticello. Music by Chris Zabriskie.

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  1. I’ve always wanted my very own Pris replicant.

    1. Just don’t forget the barbie doll.

      1. Hahahaha! I once got drunk with Anthony Michael Hall at a bar in Venice, CA. This was 1994. He was an angry drunk, and they threw him out of the bar. Ilan Mitchell-Smith is a prof here in Long Beach.

        Anyway, printing DNA and making new organisms sounds pretty cool right up to the point the new organism rips your face off and lays it’s eggs in your skull cavity.

        1. pretty cool right up to the point the new organism rips your face off and lays it’s eggs in your skull cavity.

          Isn’t that what makes it cool?

  2. Is second life still going? Will this begin as games and end in terror attacks? If we ever think we know where we are going , I would say we might rethink that notion.

    1. So it will end in some type of erotica?

  3. I first read that headline as Creating New Orgasms.

    1. Well that is exactly what drives all new technology.

  4. I’m usually a full speed ahead kind of guy on technology but this gives me pause. Mostly because I’m ignorant about this particular tech. I really don’t want a printed super virus.

    1. Mostly because I’m ignorant about this particular tech.

      You should be skeptical because; what tech? Laser printing isn’t 3-D printing. And DNA is the very quintessence of something you don’t want 3-D printed.

      Imagine if all blueprints everywhere were life-size and 3D, you wouldn’t need plans to build buildings!!!! Soon we’ll all have pet T-Rexes cloned from the dinosaurs that lived on Mars billions of years ago!!!

      Sending a text file of DNA sequences out and getting actual DNA back is a multi-billion dollars and 3-4 decades old business.

      1. I’m skeptical of anything complex, but I’m fairly certain they have created viruses in a lab. The idea of being able to write viruses on the cheap scares me a bit.

        1. that’s because you’re a pessimist asshole who doesn’t believe in freedom.

        2. The idea of being able to write viruses on the cheap scares me a bit.

          Even if we had decent control of the viruses routinely circulating around us I would be inclined to think viruses on the cheap are little different than bombs on the cheap, IMO.

          Considering the level of control we do have, being afraid of an engineered virus is akin to worrying about chimps painting the Mona Lisa… without anyone knowing about it.

          1. To be clear, I don’t support banning the technology and I’m not afraid today of this happening, but if it became possible to create viruses at home I think that would be a little worrisome. I’m not familiar with the tech, so this may be like the flying car or AI. Sounds possible but never appears. Good point about wild viruses though MC.

          2. Except that bombs only go off once.

    2. I would think if you could print a supervirus, you could print its antidote.

    3. And also, that would be printed RNA, not DNA. Although I’m not sure why one couldn’t print RNA.

      1. I don’t know why you think that there aren’t DNA viruses. There are. Including some quite well known ones.

  5. This is how horror movies start.

    1. With such a large library to choose from, I feel confident that humans will be able you come up with the right tactics to win the upcoming 3d-printed monstrosity war.

      1. It’ll all come down to the cold virus. It will save the day…

        1. Hello! I am legend ! You have to have magic blood to save the world. Just like Jesus.

          1. well, I AM Jesus, so it should work out that way.

          2. God I hate that movie.

    2. This is how hentai movies start.

      1. Everybody hide your wide-eyed female Anime characters!

        1. Fishermen hide your wives!

          1. HIDE YO’ KIDS!

    3. Luckily 3D printers aren’t cost effective for mass production…yet. So for the foreseeable future we only have to deal with one or two 3D printed monsters at a time.

      1. Just like “pacific rim”. Hmm… Movies really can be a guide to life.

        1. Fletch is my guide to life.

          1. + a set of ball bearings

          2. Can I borrow your towel? My car just hit a water buffalo.

      2. If you get the DNA right, you only need to print one or two, though. Any others can be self-replicated.

  6. I suspect that what goes into making a living macro organism is too complex to code in anything but approximation. You would need too much computing power to actually do it, much less have the time to write the code.

    1. To paraphrase Michael Polanyi, just because you have all the things a chicken is made of doesn’t mean you have a chicken.

    2. That’s because you don’t understand what exponential growth means. The necessary computing power will be cheap and widely available in the near future.

  7. We have never been closer to creating Pokemon based on our own DNA, my friends.

    But of course our lizard people overlords would never let our dream take flight.

  8. I studied biochemostry at the third ranked university in the country in that field. We created our own dna and used it to create a modified protein in undergraduate lab. One girl did her senior thesis in modification of luminescent proteins in plants. I think this is cool and there’s no real harm unless one intends to genetically modify a virus. Our institution did that too on a flu virus. The government tried to supress publication.

    Dna is just an alphabet with 4 letters and 3 letter words only. It’s amazingly simple.

    1. Gattaca! Gattaca! Gattaca!

      /Ethan Hawke doing Al Pacino

      1. You’re out of order! You’re out of order! This whole strand is out of order!

        /Al Pacino trying to build DNA

    2. Biochemistry*

  9. I hope no one tries to create an artificial Warty.

    1. Isn’t that the third or fourth sign of the apocalypse?

  10. I think a good start would be clothing that cleaned itself. Like, sharts and stuff.

  11. Ugh. I couldn’t even watch it all the way through. If there’s one field that is rife with God complexes and hucksters, it’s biology.

    Nevermind that we have no idea about dinosaur genetics or if a multi-ton beast can be effectively scaled down to an organism the size of a mouse, 3-D printing, kickstarter, GMO, artificial amino acids, virtualization…

    With enough buzzwords and abstract philosophizing, we can fix physics and literally everything!

  12. OT, I was browsing TED talks last night and came across this one from 2013 where a Chicom says his govt has 80% approval rating and is thus better than capitalism.


    I didn’t see any mention of the Great Chinese Famine where command/control central planning killed 45 million people or the Tiananmen Square massacre.

    Also this gem:

    Adaptability, meritocracy, and legitimacy are the three defining characteristics of China’s one-party system.

    His predictions:

    In the next 10 years, China will surpass the U.S. and become the largest economy in the world. Income per capita will be near the top of all developing countries.

    1. hahahahahahhahahahaha.

      Tankman is the greatest hero of the 20th century.

    2. In the next 10 years, China will surpass the U.S. and become the largest economy in the world. Income per capita will be near the top of all developing countries.

      Well…don’t keep me in suspense. Was he right?

    3. I was asked once, “The Party wasn’t voted in by election. Where is the source of legitimacy?”

      I said, “How about competency?”

      How about, the Party controls all the guns (as Mao intended) and uses violence to prop itself up by eliminating dissent? How about they destroyed massive amounts of pre-Communist China history and restrict information on it to desperately try to grant the Red Dynasty the Mandate of Heaven?

    4. “As for me, disillusioned by the failed religion of my youth, I went to America and became a Berkeley hippie.”

      So not disillusioned at all?

      God, some Ted Talks are real wank fests. The Intelligence of Crows is a good one though.

      1. science based ones are good. politics based ones are bad.

    5. I saw a similar discussion (not a TED talk) about Democracy coming to china.

      The panel consisted of three people.

      Two (a white westerner and Chinese national) said that democracy cannot come to China– with the white westerner hedging that Democracy might one day come to China, but not right now, because it wouldn’t be orderly.

      The third was from China and argued that Democracy should come to China.

      Anyhoo, the Chinese national arguing against democracy (hell, could have been this dude) kept harping on China’s corporate-like merit system. That you can’t run a Chinese province unless you– know what the fuck you’re doing.

      While there are aspects of this that are probably somewhat true, it ignores the obvious problems of corruption and accountability.

  13. ” But Heinz is undeterred by regulatory and cultural obstacles and foresees a future where consumers can affordably leverage his technology to fix errors in their own DNA…”

    In a perfect world this sounds perfect. In the world we now live in, not so much.
    There will inevitably be people who will not agree or appreciate with my, or even your, preferential DNA choices. We will be regulated and put on a very short list. Then we will have hacks giving us our fix for a small monetary contribution…your future offspring in an Utopian sea of blond blue-eyed perfected racial preference. Then again, we might just all want digestible green Ketchup.

  14. There’s only 1 thing I want from science:

    I want the ability to clone myself and transplant my memories into said clone upon dying. I would like to be able to do this from home for very little money. With this I will live forever.

    Is that so much to ask? Come on science, you’ve dropped the ball.

    1. You’re so demanding, I’d settle for merely being able to transplant memories and consciousness into foreign bodies at will.

      They can then clone at their own leisure and work out the economics afterwards.

      1. I like being human. I don’t think I’d like being a chair…

        1. scratch that, who sits on me?

          1. That SJW porn star girl.

        2. I like being human. I don’t think I’d like being a chair…

          Holy Shit you’re boring!

          You guys are quibbling over gay/not gay and how you would/wouldn’t have sex.

          You could chase down and eat gazelle on the Serengetti or dive from a quarter-mile in the air and tear apart and eat a snake. If we’re talking *any* foreign body/inanimate object, you could roar from 0-60 in < 3 while tearing across the salt flats in the Southwest.

          But, yeah, a day or two as any one of a variety of sex toys would probably be awesome. And, as a lion, screwing a lioness would probably be awesome too.

          1. Good point mad.

            I’d need to have a menagerie of bodies i could use. At various times during the week I would want to be a red-tailed hawk, Kevin Durant, a cheetah, Bruce Lee, etc.

    2. What happens to the clone’s memories? Or is it still a baby – so you propose to be a baby with an elderly adult’s consciousness? (You may have some issues with your penis size in that case…)What do they do with your (presumably) still-living but now thoroughly non-sentient body? What if the clone doesn’t want to go bye-bye?

      1. It would be a download to a blank mind of an infant. It will happen instantaneously upon death. I guess my new body could eat my dead one in some type of ceremony, but I’d rather just burn the dead body and go on being the baddest assed baby ever.

        1. How does cloning produce a ‘blank’ consciousness for you to readily step into?

          1. that’s what I need science for. I’m just the idea man.

      2. I saw the “prestige”. You have to shoot your clone immediately with a Webley revolver.

        1. Also, I would be open to being two beings at once. I would be open to my new young self conversing with my old dying self in the last moments of that version’s existence.

    3. Think of the creeper factor when this happens! All you old fuckers will clone into a young guy’s body and then sneak back into college just to hit on young women.

      1. Creepier for a on old man in a young body hitting on young women, or for an old man in an OLD body hitting on young women?

        1. I think that the Old Guy Young Body (OGYB) is bordering on fraud, so I give it the edge in creepiness over Old Guy Old Body (OGOB).

          If I was a young woman, I might flip that though.

      2. More likely you’ll have old men in young women’s bodies hitting on young women.

        1. I don’t judge others… but that wouldn’t be for me.

        2. Hmm…

          I see a whole new category of pr0n on RedTube.

        3. Exactly. Chicks are the “gatekeepers” to sex. They can get laid in an instant, if they don’t mind being slutty. I’d probably go as a female clone and would be the biggest slut on campus.

          1. but… if you are transferring your memories/consciousness… would it not be heterosexual? So, you would turn gay? Or do you think slutty lesbians are similar to slutty heterosexuals?

            1. That’s a good question. Would I be gay? I guess it would be cool to experience the pleasure of sex from the opposite direction. To experience a vaginal orgasm. I don’t think I’d be gay, I would just embrace my feminine body. It would be heterosexual? Very good question.

              1. POST GENDER AMERICA!

            2. Yeah, I was wondering the same thing. It would be interesting to see how much of your sexuality was mental and how much it was physical.

              Maybe having boobs and a pussy would make you a giant cock hound?

            3. I think you would be transgender.

              Actually, I think it would be very difficult to transfer your actual personality to another body. The physical structures of the brain and body have an awful lot to do with that. We all like to imagine that we are rational and have a continuously existing, definable self, but to a large extent we are just bundles of emotion and reaction.

              There would be similar problems with transferring your mind to a computer or something non-corporeal. State of mind and emotion has a lot more to do with out bodies than we usually think.

      3. Think of the creeper factor when this happens! All you old fuckers will clone into a young guy’s body and then sneak back into college just to hit on young women.

        Uhh, yeah.

    4. By the way I complain to my dentist all the time about the lack of progress in dentistry.

      I would be totally fine yanking my natural teeth and replacing them with better stuff. Wire strippers and fishing line clippers for example (I already use my natural teeth for this, but they are not optimal). I’m sure my wife would spring for the vibrating front teeth option.

      They make artificial hearts, how hard can fake choppers be?

      1. http://archive.wired.com/scien…..2/06/53302

        Looks like this is old news.

        1. Bah, I never answer my phone now (that is what voice mail is for). Why would I want teeth that people can call?

          1. I assume it if can also receive music, wifi, and vibrate (for the wife).

      2. Um. Fake teeth have been around for a long time. I don’t suppose there is any technical reason why you couldn’t get carbide tipped dental implants or something. You’d probably need a jaw upgrade too for the vibrating option, though. Real teeth are pretty damn good, though, if they are in decent shape.

    5. I think an interesting wrinkle is what happens when you can transfer your memories to any artificially created body (not necessarily your own clone).

      I think for sure all the people who claim they were born the wrong sex now get to switch over. I think they will be happy, but what happens to he She-male pr0n industry?

      On the gay side of the coin, what happens there? If you are a gay guy do you switch to a female body? Or do you stay male? If you switch, will there be old school gays who call you a traitor?

      1. And if you switch, do you still have a predilection toward butt stuff?

  15. my friend’s aunt makes $62 an hour on the computer . She has been laid off for five months but last month her pay was $14934 just working on the computer for a few hours. Visit this site………
    ????? http://www.work-mill.com

  16. This is great and all. But there is a whole lot more to making a synthetic organism than getting the DNA right. As people quickly discovered after fully mapping a few genomes, knowing the sequence of the DNA is far from the whole story. DNA is relatively simple. All of the proteins that interact with it to determine which genes are expressed are not.

    I expect people will eventually figure out how it all works, but I really don’t expect it in my lifetime. Maybe I’ll be surprised. A lot of this sort of stuff is moving pretty quickly.

    1. But there is a whole lot more to making a synthetic organism than getting the DNA right.

      Zeb, listen to the questions and what he’s saying again and you realize it’s pure shine job.

      Laser printers aren’t 3D, 3D printers don’t generally/exactly use lasers, custom “printed” DNA is decades-old technology and of all the stuff to 3D print with, DNA is probably some of the worst.

      It’s a lot of entrepreneurial handwaving (which he may in fact believe and/or conceptualize) that boils down to “We are *the* engine of any and all futures, whatever they may be.”

      1. It’s a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist (yet!).

        And it’s looking for a business model.

  17. If they plan to outlaw dragons, they better do it pretty soon.

  18. my neighbor’s step-aunt makes $85 every hour on the laptop . She has been without work for five months but last month her payment was $17746 just working on the laptop for a few hours. check out the post right here……..
    ????? http://www.netpay20.com

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