Genetic engineering is nearly as old as humanity itself, beginning with willful and purpose-driven cross-pollination of plant species and, a bit later, animals. Wolves did not become poodles of their own accord. It was selective breeding, one of they very first methods of Genetic engineering. As with much of human endeavor, the process was gradual and evolution slow. The Oxford definition of ‘evolution’ being “the gradual development of something”. Impatient by nature, the invention of high-speed wifi being the final proof, humans have been attempting to speed things up a little.
What does Ginkgo Bioworks do?
At the forefront of the acceleration effort are Jason Kelly, Reshma Shetty, Barry Canton, Austin Che and Tom Knight, the founders and grey-matter behind Boston-based biological technology company Ginkgo Bioworks. Specializing in automated organism engineering and enzyme discovery, Ginkgo have focused their efforts on fermentation and enzyme production. Some of their most common products include yeasts used in perfumes, foods, cosmetics; improved strains in cases where fermentation is already being used, improving efficiency and sustainability of strains, as well as finding new discovered enzymes, something used in everything, from cheese to acid-wash jeans, for as yet unfathomed applications.
How they do it
As with most good baking, the basis of the science at Ginkgo is yeast. The company, preferring the term “organism design company” over trendier terms such as “biohacker”, employs a team of genetic designers who, using cutting edge technology, construct new genetic frameworks by adding genes from disparate species of plants to yeast chassis, building up new genetic strains in a similar process to building a car and one that allows the creation of a tube full of yeast that smells exactly like fresh-picked grapes and a type of perfume blending different species of rose which smell slightly different and would not have the ability to cross-pollinate naturally.
Though, as mentioned, the folks at Ginkgo think of themselves as designers. As Mr. Kelly put it in a promotional video, in terms echoing the late Steve Jobs: “At Ginkgo what we’re doing is expanding those tools and we’re putting them in the hands of some of the most creative folks in the world, the organism engineers at Ginkgo, to really deliver new products for people and to find new ways to sue biology to make the world better.”
Playing in God’s sandbox?
As with most cases of technological advancements, there are those who raise ethical issues about its application. Unlike the concerns of elders in the 1920s that the newly minted motor car would lead to impropriety among the youth, the issues surrounding bio engineering have tended to be more philosophical in nature. Proponents of such technology, including those who stand to profit from it, have a habit of only mentioning the positive aspects, even slightly exaggerating potential outcomes.
In the case of bio-engineering the main issues are ethics and oversight, making sure that profits do not trump potential ethical concerns and the difference between can and should is still observed. Something that the team at Ginkgo Bioworks seem aware of. For all of Mr. Kelly’s Messianic bluster, others seem more interested in working with nature to do similar things, rather than harnessing or one-upping it.