Build a Pet Dinosaur or Your Perfect Child 

Synthetic biology companies want to tinker with life.

Photo by NadiaCruzova/Thinkstock
Given the range of possibilities for their use (and misuse), how much responsibility should synthetic biologists take for the things they are creating?

Photo by NadiaCruzova/Thinkstock

If Silicon Valley has anything like a coherent philosophy, it is summed up in the idea that the best way to predict the future is to invent it. Innovation is to the technology industry in the 21st century what the Feejee Mermaid was to P.T. Barnum in the 19th—a manufactured ideal, relentlessly and hyperbolically promoted and frequently documented in credulous accounts by the technology press and popular science writers, many of whom have adopted the perpetually fawning posture of subjects backing away from a monarch.

But Silicon Valley’s second-order philosophy might be “Don’t Tread on Me.” While a libertarian approach might be harmless when it comes to the question of regulating the latest dating app, the stakes are much higher in fields such as synthetic biology, where the ambitions of private companies go far beyond increasing advertising revenue to embrace the design and construction of new forms of life.

Synthetic biology entrepreneurs want each of us to become gods of our own creations. “Anyone with a smartphone and a credit card will be able to get to creature,” Austen Heinz told me enthusiastically. Heinz is the CEO of Cambrian Genomics, one of several businesses in the burgeoning arena of synthetic biology. His vision for the very near future is a world in which people can tinker with new forms of life the same way kids play with model airplanes or chemistry sets. And when he uses “creature” as a verb, he means creating a personalized living being that you design and companies such as his will bring to life. As a horrifying vision of a world overrun by quixotic unicorns designed by entitled American tweens began to form in my mind, Heinz suggested instead a small, agreeable dinosaur. “Plant-eaters would be good,” he said soothingly, as if I might be calmed by thoughts of having an adorable Albertadromeus around the house.

The field of synthetic biology is rife with competing definitions—some describe it as the design and construction of new biological parts; others prefer a more expansive definition that includes the redesign of existing biological organisms. Many of its practitioners, such as Heinz, also herald its possibilities as a means of tinkering with existing human life, such as genomic diagnosis of IVF-created embryos to select for certain traits or avoid certain diseases).

Cambrian, which has several patents pending, describes its work as “laser-printing DNA.” In essence, the company uses microarray techniques and a 3-D laser-style printer they created to generate customized DNA sequences for a fraction of what it used to cost to sequence genetic code. (Although the cost of DNA sequencing has been plummeting in recent years, Cambrian’s process makes it much more efficient by saving time and money by sequencing many strands at once rather than one at a time.) Cambrian is already using its technology to “print” DNA for pharmaceutical companies like Glaxo Smith Kline. But the technology has wackier applications: One Cambrian project involves creating a new form of e. coli bacteria that could be fed safely to pets to make their feces smell like bananas. (As one online commenter couldn’t resist observing, “That s*!t is BANANAS!”)

Heinz has a droll demeanor and a deadpan sense of humor that often gets him in trouble with the press. (“I expect at least one city to be wiped out by our dinosaurs; that’s unavoidable,” he told me. Pause. “You know I’m kidding?”) But make no mistake—his view of human improvement is far reaching. He wants to “democratize creation.” Just like anyone can be a book critic on Amazon or a food critic on Yelp, now anyone can design life. And that doesn’t just mean creating cuddly miniature dinosaurs As Heinz told the Wall Street Journal, “I can’t believe that after 10 or 20 years people will not design their children digitally.”

What of the specter of eugenics and other previous attempts to improve the human race through better design? Heinz expresses impatience. “The human population no longer lives in natural conditions,” he told me. “There’s no selective pressure. People with horrible diseases are around long enough to procreate.” At the 2013 Solve for X conference, sponsored by Google, Heinz predicted that his printer would “make a lot more of the world synthetic. Better. Improved.” More recently, at the Pioneers Festival in Vienna in October, Heinz stated, “It just seems obvious that eventually every human will be designed on a computer.”

In the past, improvements required a great deal of coercion, as the eugenics movement of the 20th century reminds us. (North Carolina only recently began paying reparations to victims of state-sponsored eugenic sterilization; many other states should, too.) In place of government coercion, Heinz sees a future of private, individually driven technological selection. And he sees this as the ethical alternative to a world whose codes for human life contain glitches that lead to disease and death. “You’re an unethical person if you say babies should be born with single gene mutations,” he told me. “Those are horrible diseases. We shouldn’t be having children born with these diseases. It’s unethical. It’s irresponsible. It’s disgusting to say we should.” (This is a neat reversal of the “wisdom of repugnance” arguments made by conservative bioethicists such as Leon Kass, who urge us to listen to the intuitive caution against tinkering with human life that they believe resides in all of us.)

Of course, much of what we deem disgusting is culturally conditioned, and this is as true for disease as it is for dietary preferences. In the past we institutionalized epileptics; today we medicate them. But the Hmong people revere them. The leper’s bell might no longer toll, but plenty of other conditions are now viewed as disgusting or “irresponsible” for a society to tolerate—even when evidence suggests such a view is wrong. Consider Down syndrome. Despite the nearly doubled life expectancy and vastly improved quality of life for people born today with Down syndrome, the culturally acceptable choice is the one more than 90 percent of women make when they find out they are carrying a baby with a 47th chromosome: They make what historian Amy Laura Hall has called a “democratic calculus of worth” and terminate the pregnancy. As the mother of an 8-year-old girl with Down syndrome who recently participated in her school spelling bee told ABC News, “Nearly nine years ago a doctor offered us a grim pronouncement of developmental delays and mental retardation. And last week our daughter spelled ‘possible.’ ”

Given the range of possibilities for their use (and misuse), how much responsibility should synthetic biologists take for the things they are creating? Every time I pushed Heinz on the possibility of regulation or ethical oversight of synthetic biology, he danced around my questions, falling back on vague appeals to “humanity” and noting that “everyone” wants what is best for their children. (He has clearly never witnessed a toddler beauty pageant.)

“Synthetic biology is the most powerful technology human beings have ever created,” Heinz told me. “It’s more powerful than atomic energy. And this is 100 percent going to happen somewhere on the planet.” He might be right. But like all good Silicon Valley libertarians, Heinz is allergic to the possible need for government regulation of this power. “The individual should set the limits for this, not the government,” he said. “This is really a First Amendment issue.” Indeed, so insistent was Heinz that his future pet dinosaurs would be protected by the First Amendment that he started to sound like Hustler publisher Larry Flynt enthusing about free speech.

The comparison doesn’t end there; a few days before we spoke, Heinz got himself into trouble promoting Sweet Peach Probiotics, a company in which he has a stake that uses Cambrian’s sequencing technology to create personalized probiotics for women that prevent yeast infections, for example. Bad press ensued when it was revealed that Heinz and another male colleague failed to credit company founder Audrey Hutchinson and intimated that the product’s primary purpose was to make women’s vaginas smell like peaches. (It is not.) “All your smells are not human,” Heinz unhelpfully clarified to a reporter, “They’re produced by the creatures that live on you.” As the title of Guardian writer Arwa Mahdawi’s piece about the brouhaha put it, “Startup Bros Trying to Bio-hack Vaginas Is the Problem with Silicon Valley.”

Bio-hacking aside, other scientists involved in work on synthetic biology such as Stuart Russell at University of California, Berkeley, have at least raised the issue of the ethical quandaries the techniques pose. As the editors of a recent book about synthetic biology noted, “Synthetic biology seems to involve a quest for a degree of control over the basic mechanisms of life that human beings have never attained before.”

When I asked Heinz about the possibility of creating an ethics oversight process akin to the Institutional Review Boards that operate in medical settings, he acknowledged the need for some input, even if it wasn’t coming from the government. “We could call it the God Council,” he said, of such an oversight group. “They would have to be really smart. If it is too locked down it will drive the technology overseas or offshore. If it’s too lax then everybody dies.” He chuckled and then paused. “The American military might have to get involved.” (Indeed, the military may already be involved; Cambrian Genomics has reportedly received Phase I funding from DARPA. I asked Heinz about it, but he wouldn’t comment.)  

But to a man with a DNA laser printer, everything looks like faulty code. And Heinz’s reconfiguration of the human body as a machine with buggy software fits well with our times. For nearly every quirk of human nature you can download an app to help you track or eliminate it. What is there to fear from a company doing something as innocuous as “laser-printing” DNA? Pet dinosaurs aside, Heinz is canny enough to talk about his business like it’s a friendly, high-tech version of Kinko’s, not The Island of Dr. Moreau.

But God Councils notwithstanding, we need a more robust public discussion of the ethics of these techniques. The appeal of genetic selection and enhancement never wanes; it merely takes new forms. Writing recently in the New York Times about genetic markers for resilience to stress, Jay Belsky of the University of California, Davis, argued that we should “seek to identify the most susceptible children and disproportionately target them when it comes to investing scarce intervention and service dollars.” Citing a recent “meta-analysis of behavioral research on genetics” and at-risk children, Belsky wrote, “One might even imagine a day when we could genotype all the children in an elementary school to ensure that those who could most benefit from help got the best teachers.” Like Heinz invoking children suffering from terrible diseases, Belsky justifies genetic screening for the sake of improving the lives of children whose genes supposedly render them unfit to compete with others. And who doesn’t want to save the children? But what J.B.S. Haldane noted of eugenicists in the 1920s (in his book Daedalus) applies here as well—the advocates of these techniques aren’t merely acting as kindly physicians tending to the unfortunate sick. They have ambitions to police (and in some cases, prevent) the proliferation of “undesirable” diseases or conditions.

In a lecture at Harvard University in November, Martin Rees, a fellow at Trinity College and Emeritus Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics at Cambridge (and one of the founders of the Centre for the Study of Existential Risks in the U.K.) called for a “culture of responsible innovation,” especially with regard to new fields such as synthetic biology. “The unfamiliar is not the same as the improbable,” he reminds us.

At the very least, synthetic biology’s practitioners and entrepreneurs should consider convening an updated version of the 1975 Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA—a forum where a range of contributors could thoroughly explore the possibilities and dangers of this new technology. If Austen Heinz is right, we might soon have a great deal more control over life, but that control will always come with unexpected consequences. As Ralph Waldo Emerson warned us centuries ago, Nature likes that we should be her playmates. But she also “likes that we should be her fools.”

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.