PSFK 2017 Speaker Interview: The Power Of Biology In Developing Human Technology

PSFK 2017 Speaker Interview: The Power Of Biology In Developing Human Technology
Design

We sat down with Christina Agapakis, Creative Director of Ginkgo Bioworks, who'll be speaking at our PSFK 2017 conference, to discuss positioning biotechnology as the evolution of industrial design

Emily Wasik
  • 25 april 2017

Christina will be giving us a glimpse of the future of biotech at our PSFK 2017 conference on May 19. Get your tickets today before they sell out!

In today’s day and age, we swoon over the latest sparkly high-tech gadgets so much so that we now want them to be conjoined to us like another limb. Case in point—Elon Musk is taking it so far as to create a computer interlace for your brain, don a VR headset you can now watch shows in a virtual living room with your friends and press a button on your kicks to order your fave pepperoni slice. But what if you took your eyes away from your VR headset or sneakers for just one moment and peered outside your very window? Perhaps you’d see a dilapidated, graffiti-ridden building across the street that has been left to its own devices for 25 years, but mother nature has taken its hold, with vines clambering up the outer walls and plants sprouting from the sidewalk cracks below. If you had go-go gadget x-ray vision, you’d see something incredibly powerful within each plant: photosynthesis and regenerative powers. That’s right, if you thought the heroes of X-Men or Transformers had killer superpowers, think again. Biology can heal itself!

Or rewind 80 years and take this for an example: Back on August 6, 1945 when the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, six Ginkgo Biloba trees that were situated at the epicenter of the blast center sprouted shortly thereafter without any deformations. These trees are still alive today in 2017. If this isn’t proof that biology is the most powerful technology we can imagine, I don’t know what is.

Ginkgo Bioworks Creative Director Christina Agapakis believes that we have a revolution on our hands: to no longer take this power of biology for granted. Thanks to the aptly named company (yes, named after these invincible Ginkgo trees!) in the future you could potentially smash your iPhone screen and it could heal itself. Organism engineers at the self-described “organism design firm” learn from nature to develop new organisms that replace technology with biology. Essentially they design custom microbes for customers across multiple markets, building foundries to scale the process of organism engineering using software and hardware automation.

In light of this, I sat down with Christina to discuss the future of biotech, that the most amazing computer is actually inside of us and how drawing from the power of biology for human technology is where the real power resides.

Want more of a deep-dive? Christina will be taking the stage at our PSFK 2017 conference on May 19 to discuss why and how biology will be making an impact on a wide range of technologies in the future. Get your tickets today before they sell out!

Emily: For those people out there who have never heard of Ginkgo Bioworks, can you describe a little bit about what the company does?

Christina: We’re an organism design company. In a nutshell, we’re obsessed with biology. We think that biology can do all these incredible things, like growing out of dirt with just sunlight. We want to ask the question: why can’t our technologies do amazing things like that, too? Essentially we’re trying to bring biology into technology across a variety of different industries, so we work to build tools that make it easier for us to understand and work with biology. In doing so, we can make it faster and cheaper and bring biology into markets and products that you wouldn’t really expect them to be in. When you think of biotechnology, you think of pharmaceutical, maybe you think of agriculture, but you don’t necessarily think of flavors, fragrances, cosmetics or all of the other markets that are now opening up through ingredients and products that can be made via biotechnology.



Our customers right now? Many of them are companies that are suppliers producing ingredients for all of these different markets. They’re looking at ways to access and build supply chains that are sustainable for different kinds of ingredients that might end up in food, fragrances, cosmetics, personal care or everyday items.

We find biological sources to get ingredients that might be coming from plants that are hard to grow because perhaps the plants are endangered or are having some sort of supply chain issue or are comprised of ingredients that are made via petroleum products.

On that note, what is synthetic biology?

It’s actually a really difficult question because the field, as an academic discipline, includes so many different ways of thinking and doing. The kinds of techniques that synthetic biologists use are also things that many other fields, and subfields, of biotechnology use. I’ve come to the conclusion that synthetic biology is what synthetic biologists do, and that really is about working with biology and doing engineering and design with biology. That field and community has grown a lot over the past 15 years or so, and that’s the community that I did my PhD in and that I and many of my colleagues feel a part of.



How did Ginkgo Bioworks come into fruition?

The founders were all at MIT at the same time at the birth of synthetic biology. Tom Knight, one of our founders, is a professor who was a computer scientist. In the ’90s, he started seeing the limits of innovation that were possible in computer design, like where was the edge of Moore’s Law? When were computers going to stop being able to go faster? What might be the next thing that we will program if it’s not computers? He had the insight to think that it will be biology; that we’ll be programming biology the way that we program software.

That question of “is this possible?” really sparks the field of synthetic biology because it started building a community of people who are coming from engineering and thinking about biology in new ways.

As that community was building, four graduate students who are our founders, and Tom, sort of fed out from MIT and founded the company with the realization that it’s going to be outside of academia where these kinds of technologies are going to be brought to industry at a large scale. They were looking for the tools and infrastructures that are necessary to bring these things to life. That’s how Ginkgo was generated.



When did your interest in microbes and the future of biotech first begin?

I’m a nerd and I was really into Jurassic Park when I was in elementary school. Originally I thought that that meant that I wanted to be a paleontologist. Then in fifth grade, I actually realized that Jurassic Park was more about molecular biology. By the time I was in high school, the human genome project was something that was in the news every day and something I was hearing about. This idea of what DNA is and what it can do was so powerful and so interesting that I knew I wanted to be a biologist from that pretty young age.

How I got into synthetic biology was a little bit later. I went to graduate school because I was planning to become a biologist. I thought I was going to do pharmacology, chemical biology or biochemistry, but then I ended up meeting a professor during the orientation, named Pam Silver who ended up becoming my advisor. That first conversation we had blew my mind. The way that she was starting to think about and talking about biology, about what it could do, really opened up all these different avenues that I had never really considered, even as a bio nerd, who loves this stuff and thought it’s what I wanted to spend my life doing.

I had just never really considered the possibility that biology could be used as a technology or that biology could have an impact outside of medicine. It just seemed like, “I guess I’m going to do medical research because that’s what you do when you become a biologist.”

This professor has such an open-ended view and when I was working with her as a graduate student, the first question she asked me was, “What do you think biology should do? What do you want it o do?” That question was really powerful. That’s how I became a synthetic biologist.

Through my time as a graduate student, my perspective on how technologies are built and how these things are all embedded in society and culture changed quite a bit.  My work has shifted from the molecular scale, moving DNA around, which I was doing very much of as a graduate student to now thinking about: what is the future of biotechnology? How do we talk about it? How do we imagine it? How do these technologies come to be? Because building a technology takes a lot more than the DNA.

Who are some of your clients and what are some of the microbes that they order?

On the fragrance side, we work with a great company called Robertet. They’re a French fragrance and flavor house. With them, we’re doing a number of projects. The stuff that’s going to become commercialized the soonest is our work on fruity flavors—making things taste like peach, coconut and mango.

We work with other big companies like Ajinomoto, Cargill and ADM, all of whom are really fantastic companies working in food ingredients. With them, we’re working on making fermented ingredients, whether they’re certain nutritional products or other kinds of cultured ingredients. With Cardeaux, because they’re already experts at fermentation, we’re working to see if we can help them improve their strains and get them to be more efficient, so they can use fewer resources to make their products.

When a client orders a product, what is the process that goes into producing the desired results?

It’s a partnership that’s really being able to identify something that’s going to be feasible technically and commercially and make sense for us and for our partners. So it’s not like they can fill in an online form like, “Make us a yeast that does this.” It’s a long design process of narrowing down the scope of what we could possibly do with them. Each project is unique because there’s so much shared about biology and how biology works, that a lot of the lessons that we learn from one project really influence and make other projects easier. The more we learn about putting together pieces of DNA, the faster we’re going to be at doing it on another project. The better we are at understanding the chemistry of a fruit flavor, that might actually also impact something that seems different but is chemically similar.


Usually, we start by asking: what is it that biology already does? What are the enzymes that can do this kind of chemistry? Can we look to evolution and see what has evolved to solve this problem that our customer has?

Then, because we’ve built these automated tools that let us build many different prototypes and test them all in parallel, we can build a lot of these prototype strains to test various versions of the same thing. Even by just looking at the DNA sequence, you can’t predict what it might do, but you can build a lot of things at once and actually see it and from that, and learn a lot about the underlying biology, too.

Then we can really refine the process and get closer towards the strain that’s making the product that we want or has the characteristics that we want. After that, we go into the process of optimizing and scaling, so we can actually grow those microbes in really large tanks, which looks very much like a brewery, and see how much of that product we can make.

What do you see as some of the biggest ideas and shifts in the biotech industry in 2017 and beyond?

I think that we’ll see more and more opportunities and a shift in the conversation around the biotech industry more broadly, away from this perception of it being pharmaceutical.

Last year, at the Biofabricate Conference, Adidas unveiled a shoe that had been produced with spider silk, made in a brewery by genetically-engineered yeast. There’s another company called Bolt Threads that launched a necktie made of spider silk that was brewed and fermented.

We’re seeing brands embracing biotechnology in really unexpected and new ways. I think we’ll see more and more of that in years to come and a different kind of conversation and a different kind of opportunity for new kinds of products and design.



What are the important consumer attitudes or behaviors around synthetic biology that you see shaping the marketplace?

There’s the typical naive way to look at it, which is: “Everyone hates genetically modified organisms, so why would anyone want this?” But what we are seeing with some of these brand stories and new kinds of products is that they have sustainability at their heart, as their goal. I think we’re in the beginning stages of a different conversation—what I hope would be a more nuanced, mature conversation around GMOs. I think by putting the technology front and center, and making sure the process as part of the conversation, has influenced this as well.

For Ginkgo, we support GMO labeling and that kind of transparency has been really important to us because we think that people want to know how products are made. 



What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned about the industry since you started out?

That everything changes all the time. Things move really fast. Since I started in synthetic biology, a lot has changed. I have changed. And likewise, since I started at Ginkgo, a lot has changed and I have changed.

The kinds of things that we can imagine are changing rapidly because the tools are changing so fast. To give that some context, when I was in graduate school 10 years ago, we synthesized three genes for a project that I did that took me three years to complete. Afterwards, we were like, “Great. Wow. We got these genes. We can do this thing. We can engineer these bacteria.” We were trying to make Biofuel. Today, at Ginkgo, in just one month, we are ordering 25,000 genes as a baseline and could do much more.

The scale at which you might be able to prototype something and design something is totally different these days. Even thinking about the kinds of experiments that I would have never have dreamt to be able to do, it’s at such a different scale today. That’s been really interesting to see that transition with new organism designers who come in and start thinking differently once they appreciate that scale and what we can do with automated technology.



What excites you the most about what the future of biotechnology could look like?

If you asked me 10 years ago, I would have been talking about biofuels because that was also a very different time in terms of how much oil cost back then. What we could imagine was hyper focused around this question: can we make all of our energy from biofuels? I understand much better now how complex those things are and how one technology will never solve a problem that big.

I think there is a future where a lot more of our energy comes from biological sources, where we can take advantage of places where biology can recycle and help keep things more integrated in these bigger cycles of carbon and nitrogen. There’s real power in that.

In some ways, what I see for the future is much smaller but also much bigger. It’s not about saving the world and this very grandiose thing but more about everyday experiences. I think that’s really profound and really interesting.

I’m also really excited about the microbiome. I get really jazzed thinking about microbes and poop and skin and all these things. In some ways, again, it’s a very simple kind of thing. The more we understand about the microbiome, the more we’ll see that health isn’t a matter of one pill that will cure everything, but that it’s more this holistic, ecological thing. What’s really interesting is when you start thinking about the microbiome as something that can be designed and the kinds of questions you might ask: What if the microbiome were wearable technology? I don’t like to speculate too much but that’s the kind of thing that gets me really excited.

What can we expect next from Ginkgo Bioworks? Are there any new projects in progress?

There’ll be a lot more from Ginkgo this year. We’re expanding our vision in terms of the market and asking new questions, so there’s a lot on the horizon but nothing I can share quite yet. Stay tuned at the conference in May!

Speaking of the conference, could you give us a brief sneak peek of what you’ll be discussing at PSFK 2017?

I will focus on why and how biology will be making an impact on a wide range of technologies in the future. First, why biology is the most powerful manufacturing technology on the planet, second how scientists and engineers are learning to design with living things, and finally the opportunities that are emerging today in consumer biotechnology.

Thanks for your words of wisdom, Christina! Come see Christina take the stage to talk about the future of biotech at our PSFK 2017 conference on May 19. Get your tickets today before they sell out

Christina Agapakis is a biologist, writer and artist interested in microbes and the future of biotechnology. She collaborates with engineers, designers, artists and social scientists to explore the many unexpected connections between microbiology, technology, art and popular culture. During her PhD at Harvard, she worked on producing hydrogen fuel in bacteria and making photosynthetic animals. She’s taught designers at the Art Center College of Design and biomolecular engineers at UCLA, and once made cheese using bacteria from the human body. She’s written on biology, technology and culture for a number of outlets.

Christina will be giving us a glimpse of the future of biotech at our PSFK 2017 conference on May 19. Get your tickets today before they sell out!

In today’s day and age, we swoon over the latest sparkly high-tech gadgets so much so that we now want them to be conjoined to us like another limb. Case in point—Elon Musk is taking it so far as to create a computer interlace for your brain, don a VR headset you can now watch shows in a virtual living room with your friends and press a button on your kicks to order your fave pepperoni slice. But what if you took your eyes away from your VR headset or sneakers for just one moment and peered outside your very window? Perhaps you’d see a dilapidated, graffiti-ridden building across the street that has been left to its own devices for 25 years, but mother nature has taken its hold, with vines clambering up the outer walls and plants sprouting from the sidewalk cracks below. If you had go-go gadget x-ray vision, you’d see something incredibly powerful within each plant: photosynthesis and regenerative powers. That’s right, if you thought the heroes of X-Men or Transformers had killer superpowers, think again. Biology can heal itself!

+biology
+biotechnology
+Design
+DNA
+Industrial Design
+MIT
+Public
+Science
+Sustainability
+Sustainability
+technology

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