Jason Kelly, founder of the microbe engineering company Ginkgo Bioworks, wants those who work in the often-contentious field of GMOs to stand proud. After all, they’re ushering the world into the greener, cleaner future that biotechnology can create.
“We should be embracing genetic engineering and GMOs as one of the most important technologies we have available to us to improve everything — food, clothing, fragrances, medicine, really everything we make,” Kelly told the Alliance for Science.
As he sees it, biotechnology can help humanity shift away from the wasteful, extractive model that characterizes our currently unsustainable approach to manufacturing and industry.
“Growing things is the manufacturing technology for Earth,” explained Kelly, who earned a doctorate in biological engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “When you think about all that amazing technology out there in nature, well, we’ve just gotten access to the code. What a gift. Now that we have the code, we can engineer what we want. All physical goods will end up being made with biology. That is the obvious endpoint of this. That’s the potential. People don’t even know it’s possible yet.”
That’s partly because people tend to take biology for granted. “They don’t think of it like a new Apple iPhone or Tessla’s new car,” he noted. “But plants are much more sophisticated technology than your iPhone. They’re unbelievably complicated self-assembling, self-repairing organisms. If you thought of plants as technology, they’re so sophisticated they’re almost alien.”
Ginkgo Bioworks, which Kelly and others founded while still at MIT, is already tapping into “the ultimate technology” by designing custom microbes for a variety of clients. The Boston-based company has developed software to search DNA sequences for useful enzymes and software-directed robots to automate work previously performed laboriously by bench scientists. As a result, it’s been able to speed up the process of producing yeast and other microbes while keeping costs down. Some 40 percent of the world’s gene printing — printing new pieces of DNA to insert into genomes — is now done at Ginkgo.
The company’s single-cell organisms are used by a wide range of industries, including health and beauty, textiles, energy, pharmaceuticals and food. Kelly is particularly enthusiastic about their potential applications in agriculture: “Microbes are amazing little symbionts that do all sorts of things right now for plants related to nutrients, growth factors, pest-resistance. We see a ton of opportunities.”
Ginkgo Bioworks entered the agricultural industry in a big way, via a $100 million venture with Bayer to transfer the nitrogen-fixing capabilities of legumes into crops like corn. If they’re successful, Kelly sees it leading to a dramatic drop in the use of chemical nitrogen fertilizers, which contribute about 3 percent to total greenhouse gas emissions.
Though consumers have generally accepted biotechnology in medicine — about a quarter of all drugs are now genetically engineered — there’s been greater opposition to its use in food. In response, Congress recently passed a law requiring GE food to be labeled. Though some GE advocates have resisted that move, Kelly embraces it.
“We’ve been doing something counter-productive by fighting labeling,” he said. “We should want to give consumers that information and be proud of it. We should generally like people caring about how their food is made, because genetic engineering is one of the best ways to make products — period. GE crops are more efficient, and as the technology improves, they’ll get even better.”
He’s willing to be upfront about the technology because he thinks consumers will embrace biotech’s environmental benefits. That’s particularly true for Millennials, who already accept technology and are apt to consider concepts like sustainability in both what they buy and what they’re willing to pay, Kelly said. As an example, he points to the genetically engineered hemoglobin molecule that gives the plant-based Impossible Burger its “meaty” appearance, texture and taste.
“If we want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from meat production, you’re going to need biotech and genetic engineering,” he said. “We have to make people aware that plastic microfibers from their fleece are ending up in fish and that genetic engineering offers a great alternative to synthetic fibers. For people who feel an affinity to nature, this is natural. It’s what nature is already doing.”
Kelly foresees a time in the not-too-distant future when “we’ll look at the Industrial Revolution as an interesting detour that gave us enough progress to understand biology and get manufacturing back to what our planet was doing before, shape it to our needs.”
Now that researchers can easily and cheaply read and write DNA, he anticipates that biotechnology “is going to move very fast” — even outpacing computer technology. But he doesn’t believe that progress will occur in the scientific isolation of laboratories and DNA foundries.
“I think we are going to see a much bigger ethical conversation with this technology than we did with computers,” Kelly predicted. “It’s much more intimate technology for us because we’re made out of biology. It’s a conversation we should welcome. We should be proactive about providing information to consumers. We’re deeply proud of what we do.”