Seventh Grade Reading Partners

In seventh grade my reading partners were ninth grade girls who were more developed than the girls in my grade. Getting close to them became my only mission. I let them turn me on to Edgar Rice Burroughs, Agatha Christie, and a slew of adult books which I read only so I could spend a few extra minutes next to them, talking books.


Avoid Obsolete Technologies


The 1979 Powell ad stuck to my 14-year-old self’s brain and still sticks the way a good song does.

There’s Ray “Bones” Rodriguez, big grin on his face, holding his signature model skateboard in front of a burning car.

“Is it functional or just another high-gloss, high-hype rip off…?

Provocative question, isn’t it?

“Now scrutinize a Powell precision product…

Scrutinize. Not “examine,” “inspect” or “study” Scrutinize – a twenty-dollar word. Precision, like a Swiss watch.

The difference you see are the differences between the future and the past…”

An obsolete technology is a memory.

Eight-track tapes. Cassettes. Vinyl records. Floppy disks. Mini-discs. CDs. The list of dead media is long, growing longer. Obsolete technologies to be avoided.


Games in Our Biotech Future

(image source: The Valley Cards)
(image source: The Valley Cards)

To make biotech a game, as suggested by Freeman Dyson‘s essay, Our Biotech Futures, requires a deep understanding of cellular processes and enough artificial intelligence to accurately translate DNA in real time. Even if faulty, inaccurate, or dangerous, the game must make it fun to play with a DNA sequence that is translated into amino acids.


More About Me

Sacramento-born to Panamanian parents from different sides of Volcan Barú.. Raised in Ventura. Educated in Riverside, and Boulder and Boston. Settled and built a family in Brooklyn, where I write science fiction about emerging biotechnologies, drugs and cures, the business of improving human health and engineering life.


It’s Complicated

I was just in Panama for the unveiling of this monument.The Cotito PlaqueThat’s my grandfather’s name, Karl Schmieder, right there on the plaque.
Cotito Mass Grave
And here’s the mass grave he’s buried in along with nine other victims of the 1941 massacre.

Cotito Book CoverIt’s a complicated story that I’ve never written about but David Fishlow has. I’ll write about this in future posts.

Biofabricate 2014

Q. What are the ways you can tell a good event from a great event?

A. The people. The presentations. And the fact that no one wants to leave.

Early in December, I attended the first Biofabricate conference at Microsoft’s NYC office. Organized by Biocouture’s Suzanne Lee, SynBioBeta’s John Cumbers, and Microsoft’s Tereza Nemessanyi, the event brought together synthetic biologists, fashion designers and artists on the leading edge, and anyone with an interest in grown materials. .

Here are my notes from the conference:

  • In his intro, Riffyn’s Tim Garner said that materials will likely feel the biggest impact of biotech since there are very few things we humans want to do that biology hasn’t already done. I agree with his assessment. Tim also mentioned most design is about making things understandable by people but biology has no such constraints. Biological design is in constant evolution, evolution can’t be stopped and it means we need to think about how we would like biology will evolve. Riffyn is focused on solving the problem of the non-reproducibility of lab results. Here’s an astonishing fact:4 out of 5 studies are not reproducible. Riffyn’s measurement systems seek to bring reproducibility to the next level. This will be necessary as we move toward programmable biology.
  • Andrew Phillips – Head Biocomputation Program/Biological Computational Group at Microsoft, suggested that software will advance synthetic biology very quickly by reverse engineering immune and development systems (i.e., stem cells) and forward engineering (or programming) cells and molecules. Andrew’s group is working on novel programming languages, creating biological modeling environments, and exploring how cells exploit stochastic behaviors, which is necessary to understand cellular multiprocessing without overwhelming the cell. While I agree with Andrew, there is still the rate-limiting step associated with getting things that work on a computer to work in a lab. Overcoming that hurdle will take some time.
  • Carlos Olguin of Autodesk discussed how synthetic biology has massive computational needs, especially as we begin moving toward manufacturing with biology. He suggested that biology will serve as the inspiration not only for the next generation of computing but for 21st century manufacturing.
  • Allison Pieja of Mango Materials told us that bioplastics are expensive. Mango is focused on creating cheap bioplastics from the waste methane produced from waster water treatment, landfills and cattle feedlots. Mango’s methods of bioplastics production are already being optimized. I was very impressed by the progress Mango has made.
  • Jen Vandermeer of Reason Street gave a provactive and inspiring talk about the application of systems thinking to synthetic biology.
  • Rachel Haurwitz of Caribou Biosciences announced the formation of Atlas Ventures/Novartis-funded Intaglia, to apply the use of the gene editing tool CRISPR to therapeutic applications and to collaborate broadly across the pharmaceutical industry. I’d seen Rachel present at SynBioBeta and came away with a much better understanding of the technology.
  • Skyler Tibbits of MIT described how to code a language for the self-assembly of materials. He mentioned his lab has been working on programming carbon fibers and wood as a method of controlling materials layering and shaping. He called this “evoluationary fabrication.”
  • Paola Antonelli, senior design curator at the Museum of Modern Art gave a presentation on a 2009 MOMA exhibit titled “Design of the Elastic Mind.” In her opinion, “Designers help people with change.” She suggested that scientists work more closely with designers because “designers are the enzymes that allow the world to metabolize progress.” I agree with her as a lot of the resistance to science come IMHO from people who haven’t been exposed enough.
  • Ginger Dosier of BioMason said her career began when asked what if you could grow a brick. She mentioned that 1.23 trillion bricks are made each year, releasing some 800 billion tons of CO2. Biomason’s core product is a cement that allows grains of sand to bind. Their product is market-ready and they are scaling.
  • Patrick Boyle of Ginkgo Bioworks described their work of borrowing genes from roses to build biosynthetic pathways that will create new fragrances. They’ve been working with one of the oldest perfumeries in the world and have even started using ancient roses in their designs.
  • Koert van Mensvoort of Next Nature gave the funniest, most entertaining and most thought-provoking presentations of the day. Van Mensvoort has been working on conceptual art projects that explore how nature and culture are shifting. He noted that the Internet is one of the biggest, articial networks every created and should be considered a living, biological entity. His graph showing born/controlled versus beyond control and made was fun. Will we see Born in the Lab branding any time soon? Koert is the first M.S./M.F.A. that I’ve ever met. Having a conversation with him was like speaking to a long-lost brother.
  • Gavin McIntyre of Ecovative noted that sustainability must be based on the biological. Ecovative creates materials using mycelium and they have created replacements for stryofoam packing bubbles, which are borne of petroleum and require multiple chemicals to produce. Their latest product, mycoboard, replaces plywood and MDF, without using dangerous chemicals.
  • Maurizio Montalti of Officina Corpuscoli gave a great presentation on our relationship with fungi, nature’s great feeders, disassemblers and recyclers. He suggested we’ collaborate with fungi to create novel fabrication processes.” His lab is currently growing materials using pure mycelium.
  • Andras Forgacs of Modern Meadow described the amount of water necessary to product a pound of steak (it’s a lot). Modern Meadow is working on creating “synthetic meats and leathers” using bovine cells. He described the creation of novel materials and composites, as well as how they are engineering growth in three dimensions. He wants to see a world where consumers have the choice to choose between products that are “cultured not slaughtered.” As with Natsai Chieza presentation on the dying of silk with bacteria, Andras’ talk got me thinking about how much water it takes to produce an almond, a t-shirt and a piece of meat. Way too much.
  • Fiorenzo Omenetto of Tufts SilkLab described how bombyx ori are a remarkable biofabrication factory. He described why silk is a great material as it is sustainable, can be processed in water. He’s been working on creating biologically active inks that do not need refrigeration and resorbable materials made of magnesium and silk. These materials have been implanted to “melt” away staph infections as well as to create resorbable bio-electronic devices. He suggested, “the body interface is the ultimate interface… we just need to get the level of performance that we get from inorganics…”

In her recent Medium article, BioFabrication 101Christina Agapakis noted,

…the most exciting speakers at the event weren’t talking about programming cells, they were designers… demonstrating the power of full-bodied biology, not just DNA.

I echo Christina’s sentiment.

This event, the first of its kind, stood out for me in terms of inspiring presentations, exceptional networking and the combination of people that were there.

At the end of a very long day, no one wanted to leave. Every time I started to walk down the hall toward the exit, someone would pull me aside and I’d end up in another long and worthwhile conversation.

I’m looking forward to next year’s event.

Notes from SynBioBeta SF 2014

I spent last Friday at SynBioBeta’s annual synthetic biology conference. I attended to meet company founders for a book I’m writing and to help my existing clients better understand this field and how it might impact them.

Here’s my notes from the conference:

  • According to Rob Carlson, author of Biology is Technology, total biotechnology revenues in 2012 made up 2.2 percent of US GDP. That includes all biotechnology products in agriculture, industry and medicine. Annual biotech growth is approximately 5 percent per year and is expected to continue to grow at a healthy and robust pace.
  • In addition, the GenBank database of all publicly available DNA sequences, now contains 260,000 organisms. That number continues to double every 1.5 years, which in turn, increases the possibilities for new DNA synthesis and mixing and remixing genomes and organisms.
  • DNA synthesis is getting cheaper. The dropping cost of DNA sequencing gets all the news (it’s dropped from >$100 million for the first human genome in the late 1990s to today’s nearly $1000 genome). But cheap DNA synthesis is necessary for manipulating, fixing and protecting genomes and human health. With cheaper DNA, the creation of new industrial organisms or DNA-based therapeutics or vaccines becomes easier – especially since you’re probably going to have to iterate until you get it right. Companies presenting their DNA synthesis technologies included: CambrianGenomics, who use laser printing; GenScript, who offer genome assembly; Gen9 who offer verified, gene synthesis; and, SGI-DNA, who offer a variety of synthesis tools and services
  • There has been a proliferation of gene-, genome- and (micro)organism-editing software tools. These include: Riffyn’s “blueprints for lab work”; Genome Compiler’s all-in-one rapid biology engineering platform; Biomatter’s Geneious; Tesselagen’s multiple DNA design and fabrication tools; DNA2.0’s multiple bioengineering tools and services; Transcriptic’s remote, on-demand robotic life science research lab; Synthace’s Antha tool to improve the sharability, reproducibility and scalability of biology projects; and AutoDesk’s programmable matter tools.
  • Craig Ventner gave an overview of his work as the keynote. He described the creation of a defragmented minimal genome, a Digital-Biological Converter that can receive digital info remotely (his example, from Mars) then convert it into DNA. He also mentioned his partnership with (my client) Novartis Vaccines to create the first synthetic vaccines for influenza. This is important because it allows the creation of vaccines in weeks instead of months. Ventner also gave the quote of the day:

“Scientists have to be optimistic about their ability to change the world in the face of people who resist technology.”

  • As I mentioned above, synthetic biology is the application of engineering principles to biology. Agile design principles (Design, Build, Test, Learn), which are popular in the software and Internet worlds, were mentioned throughout the day.
  • The most advanced synthetic biology companies are fuel companies (Amyris, Solazyme, etc.) using sugar as a feedstock or algae to produce fuel. Presenting companies Industrial Microbes, Intrexon, Proterro, and LanzaTech use waste carbon and methanotrophs, cyanobacteria and photosynthesis to create fuels. According to LanzaTech’s Michael Koepke:

“Waste for energy, Land for food and people!”

  • Going into the conference, I was under the impression that the biggest bottleneck was the ability to translate what’s on your computer screen to what is produced in the lab. I learned there are three additional bottlenecks:
  1. Synthesized DNA is still only 50 percent to 85 percent accurate (maybe this is something the guys at Evolutionary Solutions will solve);
  2. Genome optimization is hampered by measurement, the ability to measure the output of hundreds of (re)engineered organisms simultaneously;
  3. The amount of data being generated needs to be stored and read and transmitted. While it wasn’t mentioned, I could see this becoming a problem as organism engineering becomes widespread (and the Carlson Curve overtakes Moore’s Law, as predicted).
  • Safety was only mentioned once –– by Craig Ventner. He suggested biohackers go back into academia to avoid “shutting the entire thing down.” In his post-conference article, “Why the Past is Not the Future: Biology is the New Technology,” Ryan Bethencourt of biotech incubator, IndieBio and CEO of Berkeley Biolabs, wrote “…sorry Craig, we’re here and the biohacker revolution has only just begun, expect to see a lot more of us competing with you…” Based on the fact that a 10-year moratorium on synthetic biology nearly passed at the recent Seoul, Korea, Convention on Biological Diversity, I think this emerging industry might want to consider its detractors.
  • Finally, my favorite presentations? Ginkgo Bioworks, who among other things, presented their studies on cheese-making microbes; Revolution Bio, who presented their color-changing flowers and declared “biotechnology should be beautiful” (and really showed some artful storytelling); and, Genome Compiler, whose tool lead to GlowingPlant (which in turn, sparked some debate about the field).

What!? DNA Extraction and Replication in Captain Underpants? Yes, It’s True.

I love it when my boys are exposed to the next generation of biotechnology in fiction. So I was surprised and very happy when I came across a mention in Dav Pilkey’s “eleventh epic” Captain Underpants and the Tyrannical Retaliation of the Turbo Toilet 2000.

CaptainUnderpants11thBookThis section even involves DNA extraction and replication, with mention of “membrane lipids, proteins and RNA. Read on:

Fortunately, Melvin’s Li’l Scientist Wristwatch had a built-in DNA extractor. Melvin inserted the filthy toenail into his watch and programmed a complete extraction procedure while the Turbo Toilet 2000 chased him back through town.

As Melvin ran screaming, his watched quickly pulverized and sonicated the toenail cells, removed their membrane lipids, proteins and RNA, and purified and isolate a single strand of Mr. Krupp’s DNA.

When Melvin reached his bedroom laboratory, he quickly fed the results into his Mecha-Computer, which identified the metallo-organic, “super-powered” substance and began replicating  it in a saline gel solution. The gel percolated slowly as it oozed into a glass beaker.

“Hurry up, you dumb semconservative genome replication device!” shouted Melvin as the Turbo Toilet 2000 crashed through his bedroom wall…

…With one final, desperate thrust, Melvin grabbed the beaker and chugged down its green, glowing content

I won’t spoil what Melvin is trying to isolate from that filthy fingernail but I will tell you the results are pretty awesome.

If you’re not familiar with Captain Underpants, here’s a link to the wiki page summarizing the epic series. You might want to know that is full of puerile boy humor, is very, very funny, and enjoyed by boys (and probably some girls) young and old.