Bay Area DNA start-up wants to assist customers with designing their own creatures
A Bay Area synthetic biology company has drawn interest– and $10 million in funding from investors– to help them fulfill their dream to “democratize creation” by providing DNA-mapping for future customers interested in tinkering with genetics or creating their own creatures if they so choose, reports the San Francisco Gate.
“Anyone in the world that has a few dollars can make a creature, and that changes the game,” Cambrian Genomics founder Austen Heinz said. “And that creates a whole new world.”
Heinz’s company currently uses lasers to create custom DNA for major pharmaceutical companies such as Roche, GlaxoSmithKline and Thermo Fisher Scientific. He would like to open up his services to customers interested in altering the genetic codes of plants and animals, and even new creatures designed on their computers.
Scientists already modify the DNA of living organisms for many reasons: to make plants resistant to herbicides and pests, or to make research animals mimic human conditions and diseases.
Cambrian has modified and built DNA-editing machines that make the process even cheaper and faster, creating millions of strands at once, errors and all.
“It is the most powerful technology humans have ever created,” Heinz said. “Hydrogen bombs can destroy whole planets, but this is a technology that can create planets. This is the greatest human achievement of all time — the ability to read and write life, because that’s who we are.”
While Cambrian is not producing road-maps to making dinosaurs or babies, bio-ethics watchdogs are worried about where companies like Cambrian might lead us.
“We have to take seriously people like Austen Heinz who say they want to modify future generations of human beings and upgrade the human species,” Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society said. “I think that technical project is far more complicated than they acknowledge. Nonetheless, their story about what we should be striving for as human beings, as a society, I think is very troubling.”
Heinz said that he takes what they are doing seriously, and that he wants to keep government interference and regulation to an absolute minimum.
“It’s pretty obvious why we wouldn’t want to do something bad,” he explained. “We wouldn’t want the industry to be regulated. So, ‘How do we democratize creation without killing everyone?’ is basically the question.”
The federal government currently regulates forms of genetic modification, with the Food and Drug Administration overseeing gene therapies for humans. But bio-ethicist Darnovsky say that it’s less clear what rules would apply to Heinz, who isn’t proposing to design modified humans himself, but offers his services as a DNA provider to a third-party designer.
“There does need to be a public discussion, and public policy about when and who and under what circumstances and how new life forms can be created,” she said.
Asked about the potential for creating living things that are the stuff of science fiction, Heinz mused, “If you could take a chicken and make it the size of my building you would probably learn a lot about genetics, which could be useful for human applications.”
Asked it that might be dangerous, Heinz replied, “If the chicken’s carnivorous, then yeah.”