A Futurist’s Perspective on Synbio in Africa — Challenges and Opportunities
SBA2.0 International Synthetic Biology and Biosecurity Conference in Africa, Kampala, Uganda, July 12–14, 2023
A lightly edited transcript of my largely unscripted talk at this meeting.
See https://synbioafrica.com/conference2023/ for more information and program
First, I want to give my thanks.
To GEOFFREY OTIM for organizing this meeting and inviting me;
— The SPONSORS that have made it possible for us to come together;
— To SANDRA MATINYI and everyone on the conference organizing committee for their hard work to make this conference happen;
— To GEOFFREY for arranging an entry visa in record time when I learned that the visa on arrival program was discontinued
And a special thanks to my friend George SSenabulya, who is now working for Synbio Africa, for keeping Uganda in my awareness for the last few years. He has taught me many things and made me very thankful and humble for the many privileges that I enjoy.
My name is Andrew Hessel.
I am a stranger to most of you. I’m trained as a microbiologist and geneticist. But I also wear several other hats.
I am a futurist. Some people study history. I like imagining what’s ahead for us.
For almost 20 years now, I’ve been an evangelist of synthetic biology, helping many groups be introduced to the technology.
I have supported the iGEM program from its earliest days, first as a team member, then as an ambassador, then as a team advisor, and finally as a sponsor. I am glad to see so many team members in the room.
I am an entrepreneur. I co-founded a company — Humane Genomics — that designs and manufactures artificial viruses that target and kill cancer cells.
I also co-founded the Genome Project-write, an organization that champions whole genome synthesis that has attracted a global community of scientists and supporters interested in writing and editing genomes.
Like Dr. John Cumbers, I am sometimes an investor in founders and companies that I believe in. I wish I could do more investing. It’s key for turning ideas into reality.
I’m also a father of two young children who constantly remind me that I really don’t know anything at all about the world.
As you might imagine, career-wise, I’ve had a somewhat unconventional path — one that has given me exceptional opportunities and experiences but has often left me wondering: HOW THE HELL DID I GET HERE?
At the core of who I am, what I do, and why I’m standing here on this stage, is that I am completely in love with the field of synthetic biology that is making it possible for us to program LIFE.
Normally, I give a presentation similar to the excellent overview that Dr. Cumbers showed you earlier today. Today I’m going to go off-script and just share a few stories.
Last night, I looked at the demographics of Uganda. This year, I turn 60 years of age. That makes me older than almost 99% of you. You’re all so young! I don’t see any grey hair in the room!
Here, I’m officially an old man. An elder. So I hope to share a bit of wisdom, to give you a glimpse of the future by sharing stories from the past.
I fell in love with biology as a technology almost 40 years ago, when I was your age.
As a boy, I was deeply curious about technology and wanted to understand how things work. Cars. Radios. Bicycles. Motors. I took everything apart. Not everything went back together.
In my teens, I got my first computer. It was a little more than a toy but it was already far more powerful than the computers that had brought astronauts to the moon.
There was something so compelling about it.
Here was a new device that mystified adults but I naturally connected to.
I think part of the appeal was just having a medium for creativity — the computer could be programmed. My instructions dictated what could be done. I was in control — or, more often, not in control, because the computer often put a spotlight on flaws in my logical thinking.
But around this time, I was troubled. I began to realize that most of the things that people made — including and perhaps especially the computers I was using — weren’t very resilient or durable. Most of the stuff just ends up as garbage in a landfill very quickly.
I’m obsessive. I didn’t want to waste my time — my life — on something unimportant, something that would just end up as trash. After some deliberations, I decided that I would focus my education on biology.
Life was something special. It was mysterious. Precious. Even priceless.
I was a teenager. Not surprisingly, I was becoming somewhat fascinated by my own biology. By sex. And by death.
But it went deeper. How did elemental building blocks like carbon and hydrogen and oxygen become animated to have the features we recognize as alive: the ability to grow, sense the environment, move, and duplicate? It was the closest thing to magic in the world.
I also liked that all life was connected, one organism being produced by an ancestor, and another, and another, reaching back billions of years to a long-lost common ancestor. A chain of life, unbroken, but always branching out, creating variations, exploring geographies, opportunities, and resources. Sometimes finding a niche in which to survive or thrive, but more often reaching a dead end.
I was particularly interested in microbes. Single-celled creatures. Bacteria. These were the first cells — invisible and thus largely under-appreciated.
My familiarity with computer hardware and writing software struck a chord with me. Something clicked. I realized that these single cells were like microscopic computers, only they computed with atoms — molecules — not bits. And, like my computers, they had programs — genomes — that dictated what they could do, how they could respond, and what they could make. More complex tissues or creatures — multicellularity — were networks.
I was hooked. And I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to understand how life worked. I wanted to take it apart. To look under the hood and tinker. I wanted to program it.
And it didn’t hurt that many people considered life something that could only be created by the gods. Even back then, I liked to be a little provocative. The idea of playing god wasn’t scary. It was irresistible.
The seed of synthetic biology had sprouted in me.
While some of my fellow students studying biology used it as a stepping stone to becoming doctors or veterinarians, I was quite happy working with my single-celled creatures. I could see them with my microscope but also in my mind's eye. I could empathize with them and with their internal molecular machinery.
It was a time when computers were finding their way into just about every facet of society. Computers were just starting to take over the world. The rate of change was staggering. Exponential. It was like watching evolution in action.
The field of biology moved much more slowly. Except for one area: DNA sequencing. Catalyzed by the billions of US dollars earmarked for the human genome project, the technology for reading DNA was digitized and also started growing exponentially.
Focusing on bacterial genomics, I found myself spending less time at the lab bench and more in from of the computer, organizing information, writing databases — doing bioinformatics.
Then, within just a few years of each other, the internet bubble collapsed, the human genome sequence was completed, and synthetic biology began to organize.
In the two decades that followed, the digitization of society has continued. Genome sequencing has become incredibly cheap — and FAST. Sequencing the first human genome took 13 years. Today, it takes just a few hours. And the leading edge of digital biology has shifted to writing DNA, to laboratory automation, to miniaturization, and to machine learning and artificial intelligence.
This takes us to today. And why we are all together in this room.
To understand where we are going with synthetic biology, my advice is to understand the history and evolution of computing.
Synthetic biology is still almost a toy, but a powerful and compelling one, like my early computer. This meeting is bringing together us — the ones that are attracted to this field.
Biology is a very different medium than computing but there are fundamental similarities. And, importantly, it’s still people that are pushing the buttons and setting the intentions. The human dynamics that manifest in computing will also arise in synthetic biology.
This is just the second synthetic biology meeting in Africa. The first one — the inaugural meeting — was in 2021. Africa is not late to the field. The very first meeting ever in synthetic biology was held less than 20 years ago, in 2004.
To understand where we are going with synthetic biology, my advice is to understand the history and evolution of computing.
But a lot has happened in the last 20 years. We’ve seen the blossoming of massive technology companies like Apple and Google. Facebook was founded and has brought billions of people online. We all have powerful laptops in front of us and smartphones in our pockets. More recently, we’ve seen machine learning and AI explode onto the scene.
Synbio Africa gets to benefit from this incredible foundation, just as I benefited from the computing pioneers that came before me. It has fast-forwarded through the super slow and expensive early days of Synbio. This allows it to leapfrog over the old biotech and pharmaceutical development paradigms and jump directly to modern synbio practices. This is not unlike regions that went straight to wireless phone and internet technologies, avoiding entirely the construction of wired landlines and cable networks.
You’re all so young and vibrant and energetic. You also get to hit the ground running. The field of synthetic biology, while still under the radar, is far better understood than it was 20 years ago. DNA sequencing is widely available (although still not used to its full capability). DNA synthesis technologies can assemble thousands of bases at $0.07 or $0.10 a base in just a few days, a tiny fraction of what it once cost. Bioinformatic tools are sophisticated and increasingly AI-assisted.
Moreover, Africa is geographically well-positioned to benefit from synthetic biology. Much of the country is in the biological power band of the world, blessed with ample sunlight, fresh water, fertile soils, and incredible biological diversity. But it is also vulnerable to changes in climate, particularly shifts in rainfall and heat waves.
What is my advice for you today?
- More than anything: train, train, train people in these technologies. Programming the cell is the new personal computer — and far more powerful. As John Cumbers noted, former Google CEO and Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt is betting big on the bioeconomy, which in the US already exceeds $1 Trillion.
- Take full advantage of the fast-growing and affordable digital, satellite, solar, and electric infrastructure that is available in Africa. This includes AI systems. If you haven’t explored ChatGPT and related technologies, start tomorrow!
- Grow sequencing capability and use it widely to create your own regional databases.
- Use existing biofoundries to do the heavy build-test of biological engineering until you can develop your own local biofoundry capacity — this will give you access to state-of-the-art technologies and expertise without large capital investments.
- Create biobanks of the unique and incredible animals, fauna, and people in Africa — these resources are precious and will pay dividends in conservation, population genomics, genetic engineering work, and perhaps even de-extinction.
- Explore and test-drive some of the newer, decentralized approaches to scientific collaboration, communication, intellectual property management, and fundraising.
- Finally, choose the applications you work on wisely. Funding for synthetic biology is still harder to get in Africa than in America. The synbio industry is still young, highly regulated, and unprofitable. Some of the most successful companies are making tools. This will change but bringing biological products to market takes time and patience. Scaling from the lab bench to industrial-scale manufacturing costs a lot of money. I tend to favor medicines, which can be very valuable on a cost-per-gram basis. Use and trust your local knowledge of market opportunities.
What lies further ahead for African synbio?
If I read the tea leaves correctly, things are really going to accelerate. You might be starting out standing on the shoulders of the pioneers, but you’re going to have to relentlessly go faster and faster. The AI tools that have recently appeared are supercharging all aspects of digital biology — education, creativity, and productivity. You’ll need to get up to speed with these tools quickly.
I believe DNA printers are on the cusp of a big upgrade. In the next five years, I expect we will gain the ability to print and assemble microbial-scale genomes — about 5 to 10 million bases, at reasonable cost and turnaround times. This is a massive game-changer, perhaps the biggest ever to hit the field of single-cell biology.
Meanwhile, laboratory automation systems and lab-on-chip systems are poised to flourish, bringing powerful new R&D test and measurement systems online at far lower costs.
Meanwhile, the global synbio industry is going to keep growing economically, providing good jobs, and delivering more and more products to market. As it matures, it will become more widely recognized, understood by investors and other industries, and accepted by consumers. Africa will ride this tsunami-like wave.
If there is one major challenge that we will all have to deal with — it’s part of this conference already — it’s biological security.
I am very much an optimist — that things generally get better over time. This isn’t just faith. It’s been my life experience and I believe the experience of most of the people alive today. But I am also a realist.
Defending humanity, our important agricultural plants and animals, and the animals and plants in natural ecosystems — from a new infectious agent like a virus is very hard. SARS, MERS, Ebola outbreaks, and Covid have shown us that we need to do a better job — and that we all need to work together.
The same goes for countering the effects of climate change, globalization, and human encroachment into ecosystems — which also increase the opportunities for new pathogens to appear and spread very quickly.
Meanwhile, because of synthetic biology, it’s becoming easier the design and manufacture viruses. This has many positive applications — new vaccines, gene therapies, antibiotics, and cancer treatments — but it also opens the door to someone somewhere doing something malicious, by design or accident.
If my life experience with the internet taught me anything, it is that if something can happen, it will happen. So we must try our best to do good but always prepare for the worst. Biological security for synthetic biology can learn much from the experience of cybersecurity professionals.
To close, I want to reiterate that we are on the cusp of a revolution, one that will reshape entire industries, our planet, and even our species — because don’t think for a second that we won’t use these technologies on us, too, in time.
I want to say again how honored I am to be able to be here with you. Your invitation and support for my travel is a gift that I do not take for granted — and is one that I hope to repay tenfold.
We are all creating the future. Let’s make it a good one.
And don’t forget to have some fun.
Thank you for your attention.
Andrew Hessel is the co-author of The Genesis Machine: Our Quest to Rewrite Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology. He’s also the co-founder of Humane Genomics, a company that makes artificial viruses that target cancer, and the Genome Project-write, a champion of whole-genome engineering. He loves thinking about possible futures through the lens of biology and empathizes with molecules and microbes.