A startup from San Francisco is taking its current business to the next level. Apparently it wants to lend its customers the ability to create custom animals, as well as plants and other living organisms. This controversial area has been subjected to great criticism, but as we know the world is not always black and white.
Cambrian Genomics, as the startup is called, currently serves pharmaceutical companies and universities with its technology. The company, founded by Austen Heinz, is behind the first commercial hardware/systems for laser printing DNA, and it plans to deliver high quality sequence verified DNA to buyers in the growing worldwide market. Moreover, they claim to have brought the cost and complexity of genetically engineering new organisms within reach of amateurs.
You might already recognize the company, since it was the technology provider related to the hugely successful Kickstarter project “Glowing Plants: Natural Lighting with no Electricity”. In this solution, the software of the company Genome Compiler is paired with Cambrian Genomics DNA printing hardware. Using the synthetic biology techniques, the campaign promised to take bioluminescence genes from bacteria and fireflies and insert them into several plants to make them glow in the dark.
Now, the company wants to assist customers with designing their own creations and temper with life, basically as they like it. More precisely, Cambrian Genomics would like to open up its services to customers who are interested in altering the genetic codes of plants and animals and even entirely new creatures designed on their computers. As reported by Ethics in Tech, the company wants to “democratize creation” by providing DNA mapping for customers wishing to tinker with conventional living organisms.
With minimal to no regulation, this is definitely very frightening news to bioethicists – but equally thrilling news to venture capitalists. You see, despite the controversy, the technology and the company’s services is not inherently bad in theory (ethics is often a double nature, and you are free to choose your side). This is because the company’s technology could also help combat deceases by, for instance, equipping animals with traits more similar to humans, which provides a lucrative opportunity for many investors.
According to Planetsave.com, the company has already managed to receive approximately $10 million in new funding. Also, VentureBeat tells us that the list of investors contain some big Silicon Valley names, such as Peter Thiel and his Founders Fund. The technology the company uses is undoubtedly very complex, but the CEO still tells VentureBeat that the company has found a way to drastically cutting the presumed costs of printing a strand of DNA.
We are herby displaying some of the (quite spectacular) quotes the CEO uttered in the winter of 2014 at the Pioneers Festival in Vienna, as transcribed by VentureBeat, and we have attached the interview as well:
“We want to make everything that is alive on the planet; everything that is alive is not optimal. It can be made better.”
“We want to make totally new organisms that have never existed, and replace every existing organism with a better one. It just seems obvious that eventually every human will be designed on a computer.”
“I can’t believe that after 10 or 20 years people will not design their children digitally. We want to make totally new organisms that have never existed”
However, as previously indicated, the venture is not pursued without controversy. Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society and a bioethics watchdog group in Berkeley tells SFGate:
“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. 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.”
Austen Heinz truly caters to our wildest science fantasies (and nightmarish presumptions) when he tells the world that the creation of brand new creatures is not only possible, but also affordable and relatively simple. As a final note it is perhaps reasonable to mention that Cambrian Genomics is not the only company finding this field interesting. Mistbreaker recently featured the article “Synthetic Biology is Discretely Targeted by Tech Giants”, which indicates the area of artificial biology is definitely up-and-coming. Please check that out as well if you are up for it.