Where are we in the hype cycle of synthetic biology?
My complaint is that there are more books and news articles than there are primary scientific papers. I am probably the biggest critic of the hypesters, because it’s dangerous when fields get overhyped. I was at a seminar last year. The guy speaking was not somebody who works in the field. It was all hype in how you design life forms and there are machines that build them automatically. And I got up and said—I really offended the guy—“Everything you’ve heard is bullshit…”We need more solid science.
Can you explain what the Hail Mary genome is and where we are with it?
It’s funny that that term got out there. We’re trying to design a basic life form—the minimal criteria for life. It’s very hard to do it because roughly 10 percent of the genes are of completely unknown function. All we know is if we take them out of the cell, the cell dies. So we’re dealing with the limitations of biology. If we start with this minimal synthetic cell that we’re designing and building now, you could recapitulate all biology by adding components to that cell. In theory, we could eventually get to humans by adding enough components to that genome…
What’s the most promising thing we can do to curb global warming?
There’s not one thing. Obviously, stopping taking carbon out of the ground and burning it into the atmosphere is the long-term thing that has to be done. The least efficient thing we do is feed cows grass, corn, water, to produce steaks. It’s not sustainable.
I think technology can replace meat from animals. I have a name for our enterprise. It’s called “motherless meat” because vegans have a rule that if it has a mother, they won’t eat it. If we can take the genes that produce meat proteins, take the fat from algae cells, we think we can make healthy meat. It will taste more like meat, and you eliminate the cows and all the processes that we do. I like good steaks, but I like lots of things that aren’t sustainable…
Why haven’t you won the Nobel prize?
It would be fantastic if Ham Smith and Clyde Hutchison and I could share the Nobel prize for the first synthetic life forms, and Ham could be a two-time prizewinner. But I don’t worry about it much. I’ve gotten some pretty nice awards. I’m having trouble finding places to put them all.
One of my idols in science. The man who proved that understanding the capabilities of properly directed computational analysis aids pretty much any and all research.
Yes, it can be phonied up by hustlers; but, that’s true of any process or technology. That has nothing whatsoever to do with the potential value of the tech. Someday, I hope – for example – everyone whining about GM foods learns enough about science to understand the enemy is corporate profiteers and not scientists or the potential of their work.