Photo: Promega

Andrew Hessel, an entrepreneur known for mixing genetics and futuristic visions of technology, gave the keynote at last month’s International Symposium for Human Identification (ISHI), a meeting focused almost exclusively on forensic DNA. The 50-minute talk was titled “The Golden Age of Genomics.”

“My talk title is completely wrong. We’re not in the ‘golden age of genomics,’” said Hessel. “We’re just getting started today… It’s going to get a lot weirder.”

Hessel is the CEO of Humane Genomics, a biotech company that is working to engineer dog viruses to beat cancer. He is also involved in the Genome Project-Write, and he serves as a faculty member at Singularity University, a Silicon Valley think tank.

His wide-ranging talk delineated a kind of gold rush for cheap and revolutionary DNA data that will fundamentally change humanity, from individual cells on up to treating disease and changing ourselves utterly.

Now that sequencing an entire human genome has “flatlined” at $1,000, the scene is set for truly revolutionary gains in the biosciences, Hessel said.

“We’re right at this inflection point now—we know that we can get more value out of a human genome than the cost of reading it,” Hessel told the crowd. “That makes DNA sequencing of humans economically exothermic. The more people you sequence, the more valuable your company gets.”

The rush for DNA knowledge has only sped up as it has gained momentum.

The massive, multibillion-dollar endeavor under the Human Genome Project that culminated in 2003 has provided the foundation of breakthroughs to create life, heading in every direction—from the first creation of a synthetic virus by Eckard Wimmer at Stonybrook University in 2002; to the creation of a synthetic yeast genome in 2015; and the ongoing Genome Project-Write. The latter is a “bottom-up” project that started in 2016 and involves 1,000 people from 100 institutions.

Currently, yeast genomes can be “written” for the cost of several million dollars—but the threshold to create genomes of complex life like humans or plants is going to require potentially nine figures, or even billions, according to Hessel.

Some of the companies and collectives doing the most advanced work are almost ready to take off, Hessel said. Highlights include Oxford Nanopore Technologies and its portable DNA sequencing known as the SmidgION; Roswell Biotechnologies; Nebula Genomics; and Doulix, a Venice-based start-up that made its debut this year.

“We need a giant leap in technology,” he said. “This is science fiction right now, but once we get there—wow. And once we get there, it’s the tide that raises all ships… everything that comes behind it will be cheaper.”

Bio plus tech

Despite being part of the vanguard of the technology-biology merger, Hessel got his start as a microbiologist. It’s just now that he works at the junction of technology and business—with a futuristic narrative of "what if."

Biology will be what propels the future of our science fiction world, according to Hessel.

Hacking biology will eventually lead to a kind of “app store” for DNA changes. Such availability would have clear upside, he said—but it would also have risks, like specific bioweapons for hackers.

“That should scare you,” quipped Hessel, “if you’ve seen some of the apps in the App Store.”

Viral biohacking would be less dangerous in creating far-flung pandemics, and more so in creating specifically tailored germs to target high-profile targets, such as the White House.

Hessel says that any technology can be abused. But with the right ethical planning and considerations, the “golden age of genomics” could shape up to remake humanity, body by bod and mind by mind.

To that end, Hessel predicts the first human cloning company will appear in the next five years.

“If I’ve learned anything in my life, it’s all about people,” said Hessel. “It’s not about the tech, it’s not about the buildings that we’re in. All of that can go away—but people are priceless.”