Scientist Andrew Hessel is building a machine to kill cancer cells. For most scientists, eradicating cancer would be the crowning achievement of a lifetime of work, enough to put them on the list of the most impactful scientific minds in history. But for Hessel, this is just the beginning of what he plans to do with biology and technology.
He’s also kickstarting the way to program every form of life on earth, starting with the synthesis of the human genome. This is the stuff of imagination made reality, representing not only what could be the great scientific leap forward of the 21st century, but a development that will change everything we think about life science, transforming entire industries in the process.
Recalling his words at a 2015 conference of geneticists, Hessel asked, “Why don’t you take a page out of history and set the bar high? [Write] the human genome.” Through his past work with software company Autodesk and his current startup Humane Genomics, that’s exactly what Hessel is dedicated to doing with the Genome Project-write initiative. But GPW is a decade-long effort. Day to day, in a process guided by the same principles as software engineering, Hessel is creating customized viruses to load new genetic programs into the cells of living organisms. He notes, “Viruses are the ‘apps’ of biology.”
By synthesizing and engineering all forms of life, we can transition to a more sustainable form of human progress. Engineered biomaterials offer attractive alternatives to oil-derived or natural products, with superior economics and control over the manufacturing processes. We will potentially engineer plants and animals to better meet our nutritional needs – without straining natural resources. “We don’t need cows if all we want is the milk,” notes Hessel. We may, in the future, even create homes that are themselves part of the natural world. Instead of cutting down trees, wood houses could be grown from genetically-programmed seeds.
As with computing, the changes biotechnology will come quickly and disrupt many industries. Hessel helps organizations of all types understand this revolution, how to take advantage of its opportunities and how to avoid missing out to more future-thinking competitors.