Last updated September 15, 2017 at 9:12 am
Sometimes you just want to get inside the head of world-leading futurists, the people that think big and have world-changing ideas. Meet Andrew Hessel, who is more than your average biologist.
So, who is Andrew Hessel? He’s an American futurist leading the field of synthetic biology, creating software for molecular and living systems. He currently works as a Distinguished Research Scientist at Autodesk on synthetic viruses and their applications in materials science, diagnostics, and therapeutics. He’s also consulted with industry in many different companies, and worked and even founded biology-driven start ups.
Andrew will be in Australia for Hybrid World Adelaide on 4 – 8 October and talking about ‘programming life’ at the conference part of the event. Ahead of the conference, we asked had a chance to ask him some questions about his work and his thoughts about the future of biology.
Explain your work and current projects.
I introduce people to the field of synthetic biology, which aims to make biological systems and organisms easier to engineer, and help them better understand the potentials or to get started. I have three main projects at the moment: 1) engineered viruses as personalised cancer therapies; 2) the Genome Project-write (GP-write) initiative; and 3) prototyping a new DNA synthesiser technology.
Your field is so new, it’s not like you could have planned to work in synthetic biology! What did you study at university? Feel free to share pivotal, inspiring life-changing moments!
I’ve always been interested in how things work and how they are made. Life was a big mystery so it seemed like a fun profession. I studied microbiology and genetics because these are the foundations of living systems. My aha! moment was realising that cells weren’t so different than computers. They are information processors. They have an operating system. They can be hacked.
Tell us your thoughts on being involved in creating and developing science start ups. What are the challenges unique to science start ups as opposed to tech-based start ups? What are the benefits that you see in start ups contributing to science?
When I was in academia, going into industry was like going to the dark side. I was fortunate that I could straddle these different communities and act as a bridge. Today, people are more open-minded and public-private partnerships are more common. I have been able to work with a number of startups and today have one of my own. They are hard work. Startups don’t really do science research because research is open-ended. They often do science-based or technology-based development of products or services. In some cases, they can advance a technology faster than academia because the funds can be greater and flow faster than academic grants.
I’m sure you’ve seen the story about the GIF that was encoded within bacterial DNA. How do you feel about proof-of-concepts such as this? Can you elaborate on the potential or comment on the use of synthetic DNA for memory storage?
I thought this was terrific! Living systems carry a genetic history in each cell.
Making cells into little USB sticks or hard drives was a great proof of concept. Maybe one day we will all carry the data we don’t want to lose inside our genomes or family lineages. It’s very early days here, perhaps too early to speculate on where it could lead. It makes me think of William Gibson’s story, Johnny Mnemonic.
Let’s talk about life. In a Reddit AMA last year, you touched on cell senescence as well as the transfer of experience and memory. Next year is the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. What do you think about the concept of reanimating life? In what form do you think this could happen, what technology could get us there?
I am a big fan of science fiction. It’s role in developing science and technology cannot be underestimated. Some of my favorite stories involve putting people into hibernation, or being able to transfer memory from one body to another. Certainly, living a very long time or even becoming immortal has been a common theme. None of the technologies that we have today can deliver on these ideas yet. But because we have been thinking and dreaming about them for a long time, they become seeds for research and development.
Personally, I love the idea of having a continuous experience – one that could go for thousands of years or longer – because this would offer the opportunity to see and do so much more than we can today, and become so wise. Unfortunately, our bodies do have limits.
Synthetic biology has developed tools to design life, but what about the ethics behind this? Where does the ethics stand at the moment on what you are doing in your work? What kind of rules and regulations do you think need to be in place for synthetic biology?
The tools are still in their infancy. They will become more sophisticated. The same is true for ethical discussion and debate about these technologies. As for myself, I am not an ethicist. I just try and do good things with the technology. But I welcome these discussions, and GP-write is a good place to foster them.
Your Twitter bio “Learning more about biology every day” is great line. What is your favourite thing you’ve learnt in biology recently?
My favorite thing is understanding how important biology is going to sustainability. If we’re going to support 9 or 10 billion people on this planet, we are going to have to learn to use biology better.
What do you think are going to be the areas for young people to get into? What will be the ultimate career? Careers of the future?
Today, software engineering and automation are attractive. Tomorrow, it will be bioengineering, which is similar but with self-assembling “squishy” robots and computers.
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