During a panel on Thursday afternoon at COSM 2022, pioneers in biology had the opportunity to speak to the public about the code that is written in our genomes.
The first was Georg Seelig, a Swiss synthetic biologist and researcher at the Paul Allen School of Computer Science at the University of Washington (UW). He described his research in bioengineering as aimed at learning “to read and write the language of the genome”, which is a “kind of code” written in a “language”.
According to popular wisdom, we have fully deciphered this language, and Seelig acknowledges that “over the past decades we have really learned a lot about the syntax of this language”. But he says there’s still a lot to learn: “We’ve learned the words of the language, but we still can’t put it all together.” (November 10, 2022)
Seelig then explained the goal of the synthetic biology field: “We don’t just want to be able to really read and interpret this language, we want to be able to write in this language. And the reason we want to do this is because we want to be able to essentially design molecules” – molecules like proteins, antibodies, mRNAs and one day “whole cells”. One day, “ we might even want to engineer cell populations,” he said.
The key to all of this, he told the gathering, is “learning is how to write genetic information.”
One way to do this is to look at the millions of human genome variants within the human population. Some of these variants “could make us susceptible to certain diseases, others could make us more resistant”, and still others “probably don’t do anything at all, right”. We can decode the language of the genome by studying these variants and back-engineering them to understand what they do.
Another way to unlock the language of life is to build libraries of genetic variants and see what happens in the lab. Seelig gave the example of mRNA vaccine production, where mRNA sequences contain “leader and trailer sequences” that determine “how much protein is made, where the mRNA goes, how stable it is.”
To understand the coding language for these leader sequences, we can create a huge library of mRNA variants and “use machine learning to learn the relationship between sequence and function” and thus “learn the rules of how much manufactured proteins”.
The next speaker was Matt Scholz, CEO of Oisín Biotechnologies, a Seattle-based biotechnology company that seeks to combat the aging process. He explained that the “north star” for his company’s research is “indeed the essence of life is information”.
To continue the analogy, Scholz sees chemistry as the “substrate” of life, but when you “tinker with the substrate” you get “unintended consequences” – a bit like “trying to debug Microsoft Word by changing your computer’s microchips”. This is why so many drugs have so many unexpected side effects.
Oisín’s solution is to create a “delivery technology” that allows information to be downloaded into cells, much like we download data into a computer through a USB port.
Scholz’s dream is that one day everyone can have their own “DNA printer”, much like a 3D printer but which prints DNA sequences. As biotechnology develops, information could be sent to this machine to yield DNA sequences for health benefits or to treat diseases which can then be imported into a person’s body from the comfort of his kitchen.
The key to this technology is the fact that biology works on information and information is easy to send. Even astronauts could receive information transmitted from Earth, print the necessary DNA sequences, and treat their own illnesses in space.
It’s a bright future, and one that was endorsed by Babak Parviz, the panel’s moderator who is also a computer engineer at UW, as well as vice president of Amazon and board member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. But he fears that there is a “limiting rate” to the realization of these innovations, namely the regulatory landscape.
Panelists agreed that it is easy to create new drugs, but very difficult to bring them to market. Scholz explained that his company made a Covid vaccine in “a few weeks”, but then “paperwork and testing and manufacturing” slowed things down. This slowness can be frustrating but everyone agrees that it is vital to ensure the safety of biomedical products.
Advances in biotechnology are moving slowly, but they are working. Looking at the progress we’ve made over the past 20 years, Seelig predicted that in the coming decades we’ll be producing gene therapies involving not just one, but “hundreds of genes.” Scholz believes we will one day see a democratization of medicine, where patients can choose their own treatments and build and administer them at home.
Again, the key to all of these advances, of course, is to understand the language of the genome – to decipher its information. This discovery – that life is based on information – offers perhaps more hope for medicine than any other discovery in human history.
You can also read: Living in an overabundant time. Marian L. Tupy talks about the economy, declining birth rates and human creativity at the COSM conference. In their new book, Marian Tupy and Gale Pooley argue that a higher world population means more innovation and productivity.
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