Karl Schmieder M.S./M.F.A.

Three by Five by Eleven.4

William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy is credited with launching cyberpunk

Netflix just started airing Altered Carbon. It’s a rad take Richard K. Morgan’s 2002 cyberpunk novel. One of my favorite genres, cyberpunk typically explores how the street repurposes tech, life in cyberspace and off-planet.

Last fall, I reread William Gibson’s Sprawl TrilogyNeuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive. (Neuromancer, BTW, is credited with “launching” the cyberpunk genre, though purists will cite British New Wave authors and Philip K. Dick as originators.)

I was searching for biotech references. And man, did I find them, from the neurotoxin sacs that are surgically implanted in Neuromancer main character Case’s body, to a Mitsubishi-Genentech merger (that never happened), and hackers trying to bring back by-then extinct horses.

In many ways, Gibson already riding the biotech wave years before synthetic biology was re-defined.

Three by Five by Eleven. 3

Posted in 3x5, book notes, Book Reviews, Influences, Science Fiction, synthetic biology, Writing by Karl S. on February 1, 2018

I’m a story nerd.

I enjoy re-reading books, re-watching movies. I like figuring out how the authors or film makers put the story together. What hints did they place at the beginning of the story, and resolve at the end?

I’ve read plenty of books on writing screenplays, plotting, and character development.

Last year, I enjoyed The Story Grid, which is Shawn Coyne’s master work on story analysis.
Right now, I’m reading Larry Brooks Story Engineering. Only half way through but I’d recommend it.

Pedro Paramo is the one book I’ve given away the most.

Mexican Juan Rulfo’s thin, 1955 novel launched magical realism. It’s a story about a son looking for his father, and a father longing for his son. The book drips death on every single page.

The novel is a fragmented, post-modern masterpiece that is highly relevant today.

Paramo influenced Nobel-prize winner, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, author of One Hundred Years of Solitude. It’s said Marquez had memorized long passages of the book. I can’t recommend it enough.

Three by Five by Eleven.1

Posted in 3x5, biotechnology, book notes, Influences, interviews, Observations, Science Fiction, Writing by Karl S. on January 19, 2018

I’m starting a new weekly feature. Not to clutter your life –  you can opt out if you’d like – but to document and share the things that influence me during a week.

To keep myself focused and brief, I promise to only share what fits on one side of a 3×5 filecard.

Why?

The file card. The notecard. A small piece of lined paper. Blank white, or colored.

Three inches by five inches. They’re typically printed with eleven lines.

Highly useful. I consider them an essential tool for a writer.

Easy enough to carry anywhere, they’re old school. Like a pencil.  They can be anti-technology. Turn off your phone, your computer, and focus your effort on the little card in front of you.

I usually carry around a stack but if I’m pressed for time or room, I’ll fold a couple, put them in my pocket, grab a pencil or pen.

Here’s this week’s file card:

Christopher Payne takes pictures of General Pencil, in New Jersey.

Inside One of America’s Last Pencil Factories – A New York Times Magazine photo essay on General Pencil Company. “Pencils eschew digital jujitsu. They are pure analog, absolute presence. They help to rescue us from oblivion.”

Genemapper – This near-future novel follows a “leaf and flower color” designer as he solves the mysterious collapse of a crop he designed. Full of ideas, especially around from-scratch genetic design.

The Chaco Quarterly because “one must distinguish between Information, knowledge, and wisdom.” Wisdom distilled into 90 seconds because there’s not enough wisdom in the world.

That wraps this first issue. What do you think?

 

2017 Media Consumed: Highlights

Posted in book notes, Book Reviews, Influences, Movie Reviews, Science Fiction, Writing by Karl S. on December 31, 2017

Here’s a link to my Pinterest board of media consumed during 2017.

It’s always fun to go back and review what I read, listened to and watched.

In many ways, it was a year for cyberpunk because I was anticipating Blade Runner 2049 and I wanted to reread Snowcrash. But overall, I didn’t read as much as I usually do because I was working on What’s Your Bio Strategy?

Rereading William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy was definitely a highlight. I realized how much those books influenced my own writing and how I approach telling biotech company stories.

William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy is credited with launching cyberpunk

Annalee Newitz’ Autonomous might not be cyberpunk but was my favorite book of the year. I’ll write about it later.

Watching-wise, I really enjoyed seeing It Follows again – that’s a brilliant horror movie.

The last season of Black Mirror was as disturbing as previous seasons though there was one uplifting episodes that even had a happy ending.

I enjoyed the second season of Stranger Things (though will admit I loved the first better), and A Series of Unfortunate Events was brilliant.

 

I did enjoy Blade Runner 2049 but it was long and hard to write a sequel to such a great movie.

My all-time favorite movie of the year was Dope. I watched it more than a couple of times to figure out what director Rick Famuyiwa was doing. It was super smart. I can’t recommend it enough.

I Wanted To Be Right But Synthetic Yeast News Proved Me Wrong

Posted in biotechnology, Influences, interviews, Science Fiction, synthetic biology by Karl S. on March 13, 2017

I was wrong.

On Quora, someone asked:

How far are we from engineering a completely synthetic, self-replicating cell or organism?

My original answer was three years. 2020.

My answer was based on research I’ve been conducting for What’s Your Bio Strategy?

Then last week, Science ran an issue on the creation of synthetic chromosomes.

The yeast genome is being reimagined as a synthetic chromosome

Scientists have synthesized five of the 16 chromosomes that comprise baker’s yeast. – Saccharomyces cerevisiae.

We have a long relationship with that species of yeast. We use it to make wine, brew beer, and make bread. It’s the microorganism we most use for fermentation. It’s also one of the most studied model organisms in molecular and cell biology. It is relatively easy to modify genetically and be grown at scale. That’s important for industrial applications.

Since s. cerevisiae is well-characterized, it made sense that scientists would choose to create a synthetic version.

It’s not the first, synthetic organism. [1]

That distinction goes to the researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute. In 2010, they created a replica of Mycoplasma mycoides, a parasite that causes pneumonia in goats. They called that new entity syn1.0.

In 2016, Venter’s group streamlined (or “defragged”) the M. mycoides genome to create what they termed “the first minimal synthetic bacterial cell.” The original synthesis in 2010 caused a bit of an uproar. Last year’s news, not so much.

Here's how undergrads are reconstructing yeast, creating a synthetic genome

Let’s get back to yeast.

Back in 2014, New York University yeast geneticist, Jef Boeke announced that he and a group of undergraduate researchers had synthesized the first baker’s yeast chromosome. (Remember, yeast has 16 chromosomes.)

It was a significant development because it only took a few years. And undergrads did most of the work. (In contrast, Craig Venter and his team took 15 years and US$40 million to synthesize syn1.0.)

Boeke and a team of researchers started the SC2.0 project to “synthesize a modified version of the genome chromosome by chromosome, from the bottom up.”

In last week’s announcement, the researchers announced they had “untangled, streamlined and reorganized the genome of the most studied of all eurkaryotic genomes.”

Ultimately, the synthetic organism they create will be yeast reimagined. At the same time they’ll add features “to facilitate chromosome construction and manipulation.”

When will synthetic yeast be finished?

By the end of 2017.

Researchers will complete the construction of an entire synthetic yeast genome by the end of 2017. – Click to Tweet.

My prediction was wrong by three years. Oh well.

[1] In an email, Andrew Hessel one of the scientists behind the Genome Write Project, wrote, “People tend to split hairs about synthetic organisms… They argue the organism itself (yeast) isn’t synthetic.” I wrote back, “if you take an organism (yeast), delete a bunch of stuff that doesn’t seem to do anything (or defrag, per Craig Venter), and it still works, then it’s a synthetic organism. Because it doesn’t exist in nature.” Andrew wrote back, “I think any genome that is produced de novo via synthesis and boots up a replicating organism makes that organism by definition a synthetic organism.” Your mileage may vary.

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How to Create 10,000 Jobs?

How do you create 10,000 jobs?

Train 500 brewers.

Originally, I was going to write:

Train 10,000 teachers.

Without teachers, you can't create jobs.

The US of A need teachers.

Despite the overwhelming need for teachers [1], the profession currently is looked down upon in the United States and people don’t understand that if you don’t invest in education, you’re not investing in the future. (Cynically, I understand the reason the United States doesn’t emphasize education more is that an educated populace is harder to control *cough* I mean, govern.)

I was also going to write:

Train 10,000 farmers.

Winslow Homer's painting harkens back to a hallowed time

Winslow Homer’s The Veteran in the Field shows something we desperately need – farmers.

It might not sound like a sexy profession, but it is a growth industry and will be for some time. By 2050, we’ll need to feed a planet of 9 billion people. And we’ll need to do it in the face of severe climate change and water shortages.

The American farmer is on average 58 years old.

This is of concern because no matter how much automation, robotics, and big data impact farming, you still need people to run those farms. Food security is an issue

So, I looked at the question a bit differently:

What would be the minimum number of people we could train to have a massive impact on jobs now and in the future?

[Digression: When we talk about creating jobs, we’re talking about creating employees. Others have pointed out, no employers wants to hire employees. Plus, most people hate their jobs. This is a big part of the issue with current job growth models. So, instead of talking about creating jobs, let’s talk about creating entrepreneurs and business owners. Luckily, this is something that Americans excel at.]

So in thinking about the answer, I thought about sectors that are currently experiencing high-growth and create value with fewer people.

Right now, biotechnology makes up nearly 3 percent of U.S. Gross Domestic Product. It contributes more to the US GDP than mining and utilities – and almost as much as construction.

Over the past decade, biotech grew on average more than 10 percent per year, much faster than the rest of the economy. Biotech also requires fewer people to create significant value.

If you can imagine a small team developing a valuable medicine, an industrial enzyme, or a modification to a plant – all of those are potentially worth billions of dollars.

For most people, biotech is scary [2] but brewing beer is not.

Brewing is biotechnology…

distilled to its simplest form (and yeah, I did intend that pun). Fermentation is the oldest form of biotechnology and we’ve been doing it for 9,000 years

Back in the day, brewing was a respectable profession.

Brewing in the Middle Ages

A brewer takes ingredients that have little value separately – water, grain, and hops – and creates something of value. (That sounds a lot like pulling money out of thin air, which is what good entrepreneurs do.)

Over the past few years, microbreweries have exploded. In Brooklyn where I live, I’m surrounded by three – Brooklyn Brewery, Other Half and Sixpoint. New York City counts more than 30 breweries.

Americans live, on average, less than 10 miles from a microbrewery

Image source: beerandwhiskeybros.com

I can’t find the stat, but I’ve read that all Americans now live within ten miles of a microbrewery.

What are the trickle down effects?

A microbrewery employs at least a few people. They have to buy the grain and hops which someone has to grow and process that requires more people, some farmers.

New York State once was the leading producer of hops. Now it's Oregon and Washington.

Hops growing on Long Island

For example, New York state used to be the epicenter of U.S. hop production. The industry, destroyed by mildew-related disease and Prohibition, moved West. But now, the New York hops industry is re-emerging. (It’ll take a while to make a dent in the industry, NY grow only 300 acres, while Oregon and Washington State are growing some 400,000 acres of commercial hops). The microbrew boom is driving the farming of hops.

But doesn’t that mean the market is saturated?

I don’t know much about the specific outlook for breweries but since it involved biotechnology, making the jump from brewing to fermentation would be a small leap. The next leap would be to distributed biological manufacturing.

Back in 2001, Rob Carlson described distributed biological manufacturing as means of producing many of the things we used today. That means people who are trained as brewers can easily learn to brew items that are potentially of much greater value than beer.

Adidas Futurecraft is made of spider silk and is completely bio-degradable.

Adidas is the first shoe company to use completely sustainable, vegan, super-strong spider silk.

For example, Bolt Threads is one of three synthetic biology companies that has genetically engineered yeast to produce spider silk – one of the strongest materials created by nature. That silk can be used to produce jackets, shoes, and bulletproof vests. And those are only a few of its uses.

In 2015, Stanford researcher Christina Smolke made the news for engineering yeast to produce opioids. Today, it takes one year to produce hydrocodone from poppies that are legally grown in Tasmania. At the time there was some debate as to whether such technology would be abused, say by drug cartels. The bigger debate should probably have been how do you give access to people who have no access to painkillers. Smolke and her team started a company, Antheia, whose mission is to make and fairly provide medicines to all who need them.

It’s not a stretch to imagine brewers being able to produce very high value products very easily.

So, if you want to have a massive impact on the economy, train 500 brewers.

[1] I am happily married to a public school art teacher and come from a family of educators.

Update: Right after I posted this, Forbes ran an article which projected cannabis industry jobs would surpass traditional manufacturing jobs by 2020. Update 2: A month later, Fortune ran a story claiming the future of food would look a lot like brewing beer.

[Thanks to Johnny Bohimer and John Cumbers for their contributions and advice on this.]