You know the hype over gene editing is getting bad when a major TV network commissions J-Lo to produce a bio-terror thriller called C.R.I.S.P.R.
Inspired by the experimental technique for modifying the DNA of living organisms, the drama is just one more example of public over-hype and confusion about biotechnology, says Ellen Jorgensen, co-founder and executive director of Genspace, a community biology lab in Brooklyn.
“We’re all bracing ourselves,” she told an audience at the Fast Company Innovation Festival.
The panel discussion featured Jorgensen alongside Gilonne d’Origny of New Harvest, a non-profit research institute working to substitute animal products we eat with meat, milk, and eggs made in biotech labs, and Christina Agapakis, creative director at Ginkgo Bioworks, a Boston startup that engineers microbes to produce scents, flavors, and other products. All three tried to lower expectations about immediate breakthroughs in their fields, even as they communicated excitement about the future possibilities. One day, we may be able to grow cheap-enough meat in labs rather than slaughter animals, and some day we could edit genes so there’s no HIV or cancer. But those things are still likely a decade or more away.
New Harvest, for example, is developing food products with fewer environmental impacts than those derived from traditional farming. D’Origny notes that agriculture accounts for about 20% of greenhouse gas emissions, and its toil is likely to grow as the global population expands. “The two things that people do when they get out of poverty is that they buy a cellphone and start eating meat,” she says.
The research group has seen some early spin-out successes, including Perfect Day, an animal-free milk brewery, and Clara Foods, a maker of artificial egg whites. But growing meat from scratch is an altogether tougher proposition, requiring starter cells (which are not readily available), a growth medium akin to blood, an edible “scaffold” for cells to grow upon, and a bioreactor to cook the whole process in.
Asked to predict where lab-grown food would be in a decade, D’Origny said artificial eggs, milk and gelatin would be widely available, if not quite ubiquitous. But the meat side may take longer, particularly the all-important growth medium part. She noted that the cell-cultured burger created by Maastricht University professor Mark Post in 2013 was not animal-free. The medium included fetal bovine serum.
“VCs approach us all the time and say ‘we want to invest’ and we say ‘well there’s really nothing to invest in, you’ll probably lose your money,'” D’Origny said. “We say ‘Well, why not give the money to research and at least then someone will be educated?’ Then they’re not interested.”
D’Origny said there are relatively few startups in the field New Harvest has termed “cellular agriculture,” and there’s need for a deeper well of knowledge before they emerge in greater numbers. Silicon Valley didn’t take off before the university computer science departments were founded in the late 1950s, she said. “There’s nobody graduating as a cell farmer yet,” she says.
Several cities have now adopted Jorgensen’s Genspace model, which lets anyone tinker with cells using equipment normally found only at well-funded companies and academic institutions. When these spaces started to launch, they were subjected to their own hype, with people afraid that some rogue bio-hacker would create a deadly pathogen. That has not come close to happening, but, in reality, such hacker spaces spread knowledge about bioscience in a hands-on way and tamp down on misinformation, Jorgensen says.
“In 10 years, I [hope] everyone has the same basic knowledge of biotechnology as they do electricity. When electricity first came out, people were afraid it was leaking out of the lights sockets. Now we’re not afraid of electricity even we know we’re not supposed to cross the wires. Synthetic biology is going pervade everything, so we have to understand it on a basic level,” she says.
The possibilities of biology-based design can be seen in Agapakis’s work. For example, at Ginkgo Bioworks, she is currently gene-sequencing an extinct flower and plans to produce a “Jurassic Park perfume” in 2017.
“Right now, biology can do things technology can’t possibly do,” she says. “I mean, look at how plants can grow in sunlight. We’re trying to build the prototyping lab that will allow us to design biology in the future.”
But Agapakis too worries about Lopez-level hype. “There are useful lies we tell ourselves because sometimes [research] sucks and you have to believe it’s going to work. But the gap between the headline and what it takes to design a cost-effective technology is still very far [apart],” she said.