What would you do for a fat-free, vitamin enriched Klondike bar?

Last week I had the opportunity to attend a one-day tech conference organized by Singularity University.  Inspired by Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity is Near, the organization’s purpose is “to assemble, educate and inspire leaders who strive to understand and facilitate the development of exponentially advancing technologies in order to address humanity’s grand challenges”.  And they mean it.

The one day session was a sample of the immersion in mind-blowing information experienced by the  80 students from 35 countries participating in this year’s 10-week program hosted at NASA Ames.  It was inspirational and mind-bending.

One topic area was biotech and bioengineering.  In his talk titled “Digital Biology:  Life Under Moore’s Law” Raymond McCauley showed the phenomenal advances in analyzing gene sequencing.  The first sequencing took 13 years and $300 M.  It can now be done in 1 week for $10,000.  How much faster and cheaper will it be in the next year or two?

Andrew Hessel covered trends in genome synthesis and assembly technologies.  As a starting point, he described living cells as computers with DNA being the programming language.  The day may come when we can “type” DNA code into a device a  literally “print” cells of synthetic genomics.  A team at MIT produced a fortified beer that produced resveratrol (the antioxidant found in red wine- and in grape juice).  College teams compete in the MIT’s International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition where they build biological systems and operate them in living cells (synthetic biology).  The projects these young people do are remarkable.  During the Q&A at the end of Andrew’s session, the possibility was raised that if we  can find out what makes some  organisms  naturally resistant to radiation we may be able find a way to use that to make people also resistant to radiation.

That may seem far-fetched but the latest issue of Business Week has an article about George Church, a driver of the Human Genome Project and a leader in synthetic biology.  With colleagues, he’s developed a machine that makes it possible for researchers to alter 50 different genes at the same time.  His team has already been

able to genetically alter a common bacterium, E. coli, to produce lycopene, an antioxidant in tomatoes that may help fight cancer. Some of the altered bacteria produced five times the normal quantity of lycopene. The team spent just three days and $1,000 in supplies to produce the bacteria.”

In other words- scientists are already able to alter the genome at a rate much faster than was previously considered possible.  I get excited thinking about the potential to provide children with healthy ice cream or pizza that is loaded with essential vitamins and anti-oxidants or potato chips that inhibit absorption of fat and balance insulin.  Early forms of modification have been used to create crops that are naturally resistant to insects and/or grow faster.  What if there were a way to feed millions of starving people with crops that can be raised in deserts or other hostile environments which are now barren?  I can hear some of you already expressing concern about the impact on our bodies and the ecosystem over time.  There’s no doubt about it;  every new science advancement is a tool that can be used for good or evil.  It does- and should- raise questions that are given thoughtful examination.  Here, there are ethical as well as health issues to be considered. Ultimately, it will be a matter of trade-offs.  The optimist in me sees so much upside potential if properly managed (regulated).

What do you think?