When biology gets digital

The biotech revolution and synthetic biology are fueled by digital technology. Is software eating the biological world?

“Biology is en route to becoming a branch of information technology,” Natasha Bajema wrote in 2018. Biology gets digital: technologies like gene sequencing, gene editing (CRISPR/Cas9), and synthetic biology have given us write-access to life, as Amy Webb puts it. We can read DNA, edit it, and even write new DNA from scratch. It’s just data, and all the steps to work with that kind of data are increasingly automated. Currently, the most prominent examples of synthetic biology are the mRNA vaccines Biontech, Curevac, and Moderna developed.

In the coming years, the biotech revolution might well turn out to be as big as the digital revolution. It might even be bigger. Although human-made materials now outweigh the biomass on Earth, the number of organisms is still huge. Those organisms open up the potential inherent in industries like:

These two revolutions – biotech and digital – are closely related; the latter fuels the former. As a result, digital technology is a key driver of the biotech revolution. None of the biotechnologies would even be possible without IT. We couldn’t sequence DNA without computers. And the very process of sequencing turns biological DNA into digital data. We can edit his code – the code of life – by CRISPR/Cas9. And we can write new code and turn it into DNA – a process that goes by the name of synthetic biology.

Writing the code is easy

Viewed like that, the mRNA vaccines are sets of instructions, like computer code, directing body cells to make proteins to prevent or fight disease. It took the Biontech founders just a few hours in January 2020 to develop their vaccine candidate. Writing the code was easy. Testing the vaccine candidate, getting approvals and scaling production was the hard part. While Biontech partnered with pharma giant Pfizer to quickly ramp up production, Moderna employed Gingko Bioworks to help them with the manufacturing of raw materials for their vaccine.

No surprise, then, that Gingko Bioworks recently announced its intention to go public in a $17.5 billion SPAC deal. It’s a poster-child biotech start-up: it designs organisms. In 2019, the company helped to bring back the scent of a flower that had been extinct since 1912. This was part of an art project created by Daisy Ginsberg, scent researcher Sissel Tolaas and Christina Agapakis, creative director of Gingko Bioworks. With these kinds of experiences and stories, Christina illustrates the work of the biotech company employing her.

Although she is a synthetic biologist by education, we could also call Christina a bioengineering designer. Her PhD thesis, named “Biological Design Principles for Synthetic Biology,” was about identifying and utilising design principles for bioengineering. This is, of course, a thorny question. The debate about genetic engineering, especially in Germany, suffers from a significant anti-scientific bias. While there certainly are risks that we must take into account, there is also huge potential for actual benefits.

Design principles for biotech

For example, a recent study argues for the inclusion of biotech innovations in organic farming, helping achieve the UN sustainable developments goals. This is a minefield, and a dangerous one. Many people label genetic engineering as essentially bad, while they consider organic farming as being good. For this church of thought, introducing the one to the other is a severe heresy. Nevertheless, we will need robust design principles for biotech. The debate must be grounded in scientific reality as well as in a set of common values. Amy Webb expects that

“the types of conversations we’re having today about artificial intelligence—misplaced fear and optimism, irrational excitement about market potential, statements of willful ignorance made by our elected officials—will mirror the conversations we will soon be having about synthetic biology.”

Christina Agapakis sees the power of biology as a design substrate in the diversity and complexity of evolved biological systems. “Instead of flattening and eliminating such diversity,” she asks, “can we instead employ our ever-deepening understanding of processes that drive diversity and evolutionary change as tools for synthetic biology design?” Biology is made up of interdependent and networked systems, just like today’s digital technology. There are built-in redundancies crucial for evolution, with redundant genes serving as backup for mutations and recombinations.

Digital biology

This is fascinating stuff, and we need to have serious conversations about the power and the peril of synthetic biology. The engineering approach to biology could possibly learn from the achievements and shortcomings of digital engineering. When we’re programming biological systems, we can learn from the history of programming IT systems. We know that design and creativity are important, but who exactly is the user of biological systems? Humanity.

We’ll need a user-centric, or human-centric, design for bioengineering. On the strategy and the design levels, we can perhaps learn a thing or two from the digital revolution. We’ve had a substantial debate on regulation (and other interventions) in the world of tech for quite a while. In comparison, genetic engineering is already a regulated industry. But synthetic biology is much broader than genetic engineering. The European Commission defined it in 2005 as

“applying the engineering paradigm of systems design to biological systems in order to produce predictable and robust systems with novel functionalities that do not exist in nature”.

There’s even a biohacking community of amateur biologists and open-source biotechnology. Sounds familiar? Biotech is already moving into the cloud, with labs getting automated and research becoming remote. Is software eating the biological world? That’s at least how it looks.

Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash