DNA Startup Aims To Let Customers “Create Custom Animals”

A startup out of San Francisco, based around the ‘custom’ manipulation of DNA, is apparently aiming to take its current business to the predictable next-step of allowing customers to create ‘custom’ animals, plants, etc, according to recent reports.

Said company — Austen Heinz’s Cambrian Genomics — currently creates custom DNA for “major” pharmaceutical companies, universities, etc, with the use of customized machines and lasers, in a makeshift lab in San Francisco.

GMO monkey

The company has apparently managed to ~$10 millions in new funding so far from a fair number of investors (120) with the aim of expanding and eventually “democratizing creation” — with minimal to no regulation, apparently (though maybe that’s just a sales point).

Here are some of the better recent quotes from Heinz (via an article from the SF Gate) on the technology:

  • “Anyone in the world that has a few dollars can make a creature, and that changes the game. And that creates a whole new world.”
  • “I can’t believe that after 10 or 20 years people will not design their children digitally. We want to make totally new organisms that have never existed.”
  • “It is the most powerful technology humans have ever created. Hydrogen bombs can destroy whole planets [Author’s note: no they can’t, not even close], but this is a technology that can create planets. This is the greatest human achievement of all time — the ability to read and write life, because that’s who we are.”
  • “It’s pretty obvious why we wouldn’t want to do something bad. We wouldn’t want the industry to be regulated. So, ‘How do we democratize creation without killing everyone?’ is basically the question.”
  • “A decent percentage of people have really nasty mutations that cause really bad, horrible things, like Down syndrome and cystic fibrosis. These are basically like hell on Earth, and I think it’s smart to be able to avoid those things.”
  • “If you could take a chicken and make it the size of my building, you would probably learn a lot about genetics, which could be useful for human applications.”
  • “Wouldn’t that be dangerous?” “If the chicken’s carnivorous, then yeah.”

There’s something very childlike to these comments don’t you think? I heard someone make the comment recently that we live in the age of “anything goes, and nothing matters” — after reading the above quotes that comment came to mind immediately.

It should probably be noted here that far more than just DNA goes into what an animal/plant/bacteria/etc is — various non-DNA based paths of inheritance; the 3-D structure of the genome itself; the symbiotic communities of microbes that most animals are entirely dependant upon (and the co-evolution that accompanies these); the broader environmental/ecological context (which affects genetic expression); etc.

It isn’t as simple as just changing various details at will with no ‘negative’ repercussions — the system(s) itself needs to be taken into account, not just the details that make it up. To claim that one can control to any great degree the processes by which an organism builds and creates itself, while taking nothing into account except DNA, is, to be blunt, delusional.

While the occasional novelty — glowing plants, Bt-toxin resistance, etc — can be created without incredible difficulty, broader changes (such as those envisioned in popular entertainment) are of very questionable possibility. Genetic manipulation is a very inefficient and impossible-to-be-precise method manipulation.

As demonstrated by the various cloning programs over the years (which is a far simpler process), many animals created via these artificial processes just aren’t that healthy — many having the tendency to die quite young of organ failure.

To my mind, traditional methods of trait manipulation — selective breeding, hybridization, etc — are of much greater use, primarily owing to their greater efficacy, economy, and reliability.

That’s not to say that approaches such as those advertised by Cambrian Genomics won’t be tried/done, it’s just to say that it’s vastly complex than it’s made out to be by many of its proponents.

On that note, it’s probably worth mentioning the “problems” that some of the company’s affiliated startups are looking to address: a startup dubbed Petomics is apparently aiming to create a means of making dog and cat feces smell like bananas (I’m not making a joke); and a startup known as SweetPeach is, as Heinz stated recently, intending to make “vaginas smell like peaches” — through the use of personalized probiotics created after analyzing customer sample swabs.

Heinz has noted that he hopes to help in the creation of “thousands” of startups such as these. Lmao. A profound service to humanity, no doubt.

The whole thing has the feel of an infomercial scam to me. That said, the broader field that Cambrian Genomics is a part of may very well have some “successes” over the coming years, but how much any such developments will actually improve anyone’s life (if at all) is an open question. If nothing else, I’d argue that genetic manipulation via complex technologies/approaches is something that is unlikely to ever be economical for most purposes.

There’s certainly a chance, though, that the field will be developed (or already is being developed by various government bodies, companies, etc) for specialized markets, rather than the general consumer market. That seems a far more likely possibility (to my mind) than one where every Joe Schmuck around the world has a designer kid, a dog that smells like roses, or some sort of designer “creature” that they “created” themselves.

I suppose that we’ll find out soon enough though, won’t we?

Image Credit: Screen Capture

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