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

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?

Train 500 brewers.

Originally, I was going to write:

Train 10,000 teachers.

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 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 average age of the American farmer is 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

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.

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.

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 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.]

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30 Things I Did Before Turning 30

In anticipation of my 54th birthday, I answered this question on Quora:

What are the 30 things you did before turning 30 in your life?

  1. Learned to skateboard ramps and pools. Memorized every ditch and was part of an informal word-of-mouth network that knew when a new ramp appeared in Ventura. Convinced my parents to drive me to skateparks all over Southern California, so I skated a bunch of the first-generation classic parks. My home was Oxnard’s Endless Wave with it’s odd, over-vert double-pool. Favorite trick: Frontside air. Second favorite: Inverts. Pool Skating Will Never Die. Biggest lesson I learned from skateboarding: Always get up after you fall. That applies to pretty much everything in life. Fail. Get up. Try again.
  2. Lived in Lausanne, Switzerland for a year, where I studied French. That would inspire me to improve my German, learn Italian, study other languages. I was also part of a Swiss skateboard team that toured that small country.
  3. Took piano lessons for 13 years. Practiced every day. Played in recitals twice a year. Learned to play the trombone in high school, taught myself saxophone. Played in a free jazz punk band called The Love Shortcut that played high school parties – probably to the dismay of the kids that were there to drink and have under-aged sex. The band turned into several solo performance art pieces and later, to readings at poetry slams. I learned that if you put your mind to it, you can pretty much learn anything.Karl Schmieder 1981
  4. Had crushes Fell in love. Had my heart broken. Finally kissed a girl. Eventually had sex but didn’t have it again for a long, long time.
  5. Learned to do it yourself. Skateboard culture with its emphasis on self-reliance gave way to punk rock and its Do It Yourself aesthetic. I would eventually grow bored with punk music philosophizing but never with self-reliance and DIY. This would inspire the way I approach business. See the Lesson mentioned in #1.
  6. Saw tons of live bands during the hey-day of early West Coast punk. Favorite venue: The Whiskey A Go Go. Favorite show: 45 Grave opening for The Cramps. Kept seeing a steady diet of bands in Boston, Denver, New York, and wherever I happened to be traveling.
  7. Started a lawn care business so I could pay for my skateboard habit. Took jobs as a glazier, a lab assistant, a Spanish-English translator, a transcriber, a temp. Learned that I could get a job in 24 hours if put my mind to it. Also, learned that even if I worked for someone, I eventually was going to be my own boss. Call this early lessons in entrepreneurship.
  8. Read far and wide, learning that I like bold ideas and works of the imagination. Focused on science fiction and science fact which inspired me to study science and become a science writer.

    Over Junipero Serra’s shoulder

  9. Moved from my hometown of Ventura to Riverside for college, to Boston, New Orleans then Boulder and Denver for grad school. I miss Ventura every day.
  10. Spent way too much time putting off the real-world by staying in school. Got a Master of Science in Biochemistry, a Master’s of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, took more writing classes. Eventually decided I needed to learn business, took classes on selling and marketing.
  11. While working on that MFA, studied with Keith Abbott, Kathy Acker, Fielding Dawson and Allen Ginsburg.

    Kathy Acker and William S. Burroughs.

  12. Started keeping a journal. I knew I was going to write but it was my father who suggested it might be nice to keep a journal while traveling. I did and continue today, 30 years later. I have boxes of journals in my basement and on my shelves. I rarely look at them, but occasionally look for ideas I had in the past. I figure I will eventually either plunder them for something worthwhile or throw them into a landfill.
  13. Traveled alone across Europe, mostly in German-speaking countries because I wanted to learn German.
  14. Interviewed a bunch of German experimental musicians, published those interviews, along with reviews of live shows and records. That was the beginning of my writing career. But I didn’t get paid for a published piece of magazine writing until my mid-40s.
  15. Made a guest appearance on a surreal experimental record with Frank Dommert and HNAS because I happen to be in the right place at the right time.
  16. Taught myself Italian because I had a friend who lived in Chiasso, I wanted to speak with to Italian girls, and I thought it’d be fun. Did better with the Italian than with the girls.
  17. Saved my money so I could move cross-country. Moved to Boston because I didn’t have the guts to make the leap to New York City even though that’s where I knew I belonged. Justified Beantown by telling myself I’d work at a biotech company, instead waited tables, took odd jobs, and taught myself to write.
  18. Drove cross-country in a 1970 Karmann-Ghia with my ex-girlfriend’s dog. Realized there’s a reason why Americans prefer big cars. If your parents or your girlfriend live on the other side of the state, driving a small car is no fun – you want a land yacht.
  19. Taught myself Brazilian Portuguese while living in Boston. I was inspired by David Byrne’s Brazilian compilations and the professionals that had emigrated from Brazil to work in restaurants. Made some great friends. Again learned that you can learn anything if you put your mind to it. Also, learned that if you don’t practice what you learn (Portuguese in this case), eventually you forget.
  20. Danced a lot. It took me 20 years to realize how much I enjoyed it and how important it is for all of us. Zumba classes occasionally fulfill this now. We don’t dance enough. You need to dance.
  21. Spent a lot of time angry or depressed and lonely. It took me years to realize that bars and dance clubs, drinking and drugs, and spending money are distractions from the real work of writing.
  22. Eventually realized I could write about what I loved and carve out a unique niche. Used that idea to create a network in New York City. I called every health care public relations agency, interviewed at thirty, and was offered jobs by six. Moved to New York.
  23. Shortly after I started working in public relations, realized it wasn’t going to work for me and remembered I would need to become my own boss.
  24. Taught other people how to get a job by networking directly with decision makers.
  25. Spent every night after work writing five novels and ten screenplays. Collected a stack of form rejections, got close to publishing one of the novels, realized I needed more time to figure out what I was going to write. At the same time wrote dozens of short short stories, published a few, and threw away all the rest because they were all terrible.
  26. Accumulated credit card debt that took me way too long to pay off and learned that it’s too easy – way too easy – to get into debt.
  27. Hiked and camped and learned to appreciate nature.
  28. Learned to listen to myself. I didn’t always pay attention but I definitely listened.
  29. Came to appreciate my parents and my sister, realized I was very lucky to have grown up where I did, speaking Spanish at home, with a pair of pretty great people. My father was a meatcutter who taught me how to work hard; my mother was a Spanish-English interpreter who taught me to use my imagination and creativity. We lived modestly but always had what we needed.
  30. Met the girl of my dreams, chased her from Boston to Albuquerque to New York City and married her.

Karl + Kristen. 1995. 2017.

Of course, I did much more than this.

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Who Takes iGEM Seriously?

This past week iGEM startup PvP Biologics closed a $35 million round with Takeda.

Last year, in June 2016, Ginkgo Bioworks raised $100 million. The company was founded by a team that participated in the first iGEM competitions.

The iGEM startup page lists some 19 startups that originated from the competition.

While Christopher VanLang is right that is “an excellent teaching tool but not likely taken seriously by academia,” I believe it’s more important than we realize.

The Origins of iGEM

As outlined in Rob Carlson’s excellent Biology is Technology, the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition grew out of an independent activities project course in synthetic biology at MIT in 2003, which in turn was inspired by a circuit design course taught at MIT in the last-1970s.

It was organized by Tom Knight, a senior scientist at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and an early participate in designing the Internet precursor, ARAPNet, Drew Endy, and Randy Rettberg, an engineer and former exec at Sun Microsystems and Apple, who now serves as president of iGEM.

In 2003, the idea that biology could be engineered was still a radical idea. (For context, 2003 was two years after the dot com bubble of 1996–2001 crashed and two years after 9/11/2001.)

In 2004, the first official competition included students from Boston University, Caltech, MIT, Princeton University and the University of Texas, Austin. The students that participated created the first rudimentary genetic circuits.

Over the years, the student projects have grown increasingly complex.

The competition has grown internationally and the number of participants has grown exponentially (in 2016, there were more than 5,000 participants from around the globe).

Disclaimer: I Am a Long-time iGEM Fan

I had been following iGEM since 2010 when I started looking to synthetic biology as a way of applying Internet business models to biotechnology. I attended my first competition in 2016 as an observer and to accompany my son, a high school senior who was a member of the GenSpace team.

I was lucky enough to speak with teams from across the United States, China, Costa Rica, Germany, Japan and Mexico. I watched presentations from teams solving real problems using biology and demonstrating that biology can solve impossible problems.

In addition, as part of the competition, the teams had to engage with their communities. To me, as a science writer, this is one of the most significant benefits of iGEM: high school and college kids learn about synthetic biology but also help dispel myths associated with biotechnology. (Not to mention every team is contributing to the BioBricks project.)

What’s fascinating is giving kids the tools of engineered biology is that they are able to use their imaginations without the constraints of the science they will likely learn in college. This is an important creative exercise. (The new BioDesign Challenge does something similar with design students. It will be interesting to see how that evolves over time.)

I walked away impressed.

Maybe iGEM isn’t taken seriously by academia, but it is taken very seriously by the kids that participate. At some point someone will write a history of iGEM or follow a team reality-show style. It could make for some very compelling, dramatic storytelling.

If iGEM is a leading indicator of what is possible in synthetic biology, then the future is very bright indeed.

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My Three Words for 2017

3 Words: Bolder. Creative. Authority.

Me in front of the Frank Gehry at Novartis HQ, Basel. Summer 2016

Chris Brogan is an inspiration. If you study internet marketing, you’re bound to run across him. He’s smart, honest and prolific. Anthony Iannarino had him on an episode of In The Arena, where he discussed his book, The Impact Equation. I subscribed to Chris’ newsletter and read every word every Sunday morning.

A few days ago, Chris mentioned he chooses three words to guide his success every year. Here’s his blogpost on the subject. The idea is to choose themes that overlap in all the important areas of your life.

My three words for 2017

Bold. 

An ability to take risks. Smart risks. Bold and bolder suggests stepping outside my comfort zone. It means connecting with new people, testing new things, and moving faster. It’s an acknowledgement that status quo isn’t enough, that the clock is ticking. It’s a call to action.

Creative.

I’ve composed music, written and published fiction, and created art. I am a professional storyteller. I help define strategies and solve problems. Creatively. The idea here is to expand and stay focused on my creativity. The science I write about and help companies market always needs more creativity. What I do as a creative will reflect positively in all other aspects of my life. Interestingly, (at least to me) “The Creative” is also one of the interpretations of the first hexagram of the i-ching. It is so important that the authors of this ancient book of divination put it first. Creativity drives all.

Authority. 

This word suggests two things to me. It suggests knowledge and expertise on a subject. It suggests leadership. I have 20 years experience as a strategic copywriter, have been in business for more than 15 years, have more than 10 years experience as a digital marketer. Authority is a reminder to myself of my experience and experiences, and my need to deliver value always. Authority also includes the word “author.” That’s important as I co-author my first book of non-fiction.

What are your three words?