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The complications of trying to engineer life (rerun)
Dec 29, 2022

The complications of trying to engineer life (rerun)

Futurist Amy Webb argues that we need to ensure that "synthetic biology" is accessible and equitable in everything from fertility to farming.

This episode originally aired on Feb. 15, 2022.

This is the time of year when we hear a lot of predictions for the year ahead, but futurist Amy Webb is known for looking to the future year-round. Not just for 2023, but even further out to the technology that will drive meaningful shifts in how we live and experience the world.

Webb’s predictions often come with warnings about some of the economic and ethical considerations that accompany those advances. 

She recently co-authored a book with geneticist Andrew Hessel called “The Genesis Machine: Our Quest to Rewrite Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology.” In it, she explores the role “synthetic biology” will play in shaping our world.

It already has, in some ways, like bringing us the mRNA vaccines we’re using to fight COVID.

But in the not-so-distant future, Webb said, synthetic biology will play an even bigger role in our health, what we eat and even how we have kids. The following is an edited transcript of Webb’s conversation with Marketplace’s Kimberly Adams.

Amy Webb: We need to start preparing for a future in which we are no longer held to what nature desires. And by that, I mean we’re going to have a little bit more control over how we procreate, how we farm our produce and even how we develop our meat. I know it sounds a little scary — the prospect of tinkering with biology — but in actuality, what this does is give us options we’re going to need going forward.

Kimberly Adams: One of the ways you talk about how we’re likely to experience this is through “upgrades” — upgrading our agriculture, but also upgrading humans. What does that look like?

Webb: In the near future, we might choose to procreate using IVF — in-vitro fertilization — instead of sex. Now, I think we’re still going to have plenty of sex, but we may choose to procreate in different ways. And there’s some examples already. One includes genetic surgery. We’ll start making genetic edits to embryos in order to correct major errors that might otherwise prevent a baby from being born. There’s an emerging technology that’s going to soon allow people to create a baby using their own genetic material without necessarily requiring donor eggs or sperm. And even further down the road, we’re going to be in a position where we can both create and screen more embryos. And at some point, it might theoretically also allow us to select for certain traits, including things like resistance to certain viruses. This gives us greater control, to some degree, over how life propagates.

Adams: Who controls this technology right now?

Webb: At the moment, we are at the beginning of the biological ages, you know, long transformation, which means that we haven’t yet seen lots of consolidation. There is a flood of capital being directed at synthetic biology right now, which means that in the next 24 to 36 months, we’re gonna start to see this ecosystem develop. And we’re seeing crazy amounts of money right now. There’s a group of big biotech veterans that raised $3 billion to create a company called Altos Labs on the premise that the fundamental machinery of living cells can be programmed. My concern here is that big investment usually requires big returns, and that has already gone badly within the field of synthetic biology and biotech. But we’ve also seen that story play out again and again in other fields, like artificial intelligence. So we have to be willing to engage in challenging conversations right now about who should own the intellectual property of a living organism and who should have access to the genetic code of life. And should that access be profit driven? And how does that change from country to country? And if we wait to have these conversations, we’re going to wind up in a worse situation in the farther future than we find ourselves in today when it comes to Big Tech.

Adams: You lay out nine risks that you think we’re really going to have to think about when it comes to synthetic biology. Obviously we can’t get into all of them, but I’d like you to expand a bit on No. 6, that synthetic biology could create a new kind of digital divide. Can you talk about what that’s gonna look like?

Webb: For people who are struggling to get pregnant, there are options. But those options are very expensive. And so already, the situation is that wealthier people or people with means have the ability to select IVF if they’re not able to get pregnant on their own. And, you know, people who can’t afford those treatments can’t potentially get pregnant. But there’s another piece of this. Not only do we have a digital divide, but we wind up with a genetic divide. Because people who can afford these treatments can also afford to optimize their children in advance, either through selection or genetic surgery, which is going in and making some tweaks to an embryo before it’s implanted, or in the much farther future, perhaps, you know, some type of genetic enhancement. And we have to make sure that everybody is in a position to offer the very best for their children. That’s going to require us thinking through how these techniques can be made much more affordable and available to everybody.

Adams: So much of the conversation around synthetic biology does have a lot of fear and concern layered over it, but it sounds like what you have is hope.

Webb: I do have hope because even when we are at our most polarized, we all still want to survive and to thrive. And the heart of the matter is that there are some external issues facing us that we are not going to be able to work through without some type of intervention. Sunday, during the Super Bowl, Americans consumed somewhere around 1.5 billion chicken wings. The amount of resources that it took to create the number of chickens in order to produce that many wings is absolutely staggering. And a lot of times those chickens are not grown in the most humane conditions. So what if, instead, we were able to produce something that looked like a chicken wing, tasted like a chicken wing, but was made in a bioreactor rather than a commercial poultry farm? And [if] we were able to produce those at scale, then we don’t need to consume as many resources. Those synthetically produced chicken wings don’t have hormones and antibiotics, so they’re better for us, they’re better for the environment. I mean, for goodness’ sake, they’re better for the chickens. But it’s gonna require us to confront our cherished beliefs about where our food comes from. I know that there are lots of applications of this technology that are going to give us the solutions we need, we’re going to need soon. But in order for those solutions to find a place in our homes and in our schools and our hospitals, we have to change our mental models. And we have to be able to have conversations with each other about what it means to tinker with the source code of life. And what that means is if somebody seems skeptical about that — which of course they would — not to shut them up right away, but to listen to them and hear out their concerns. We have to give each other the respect that it’s going to take to have these conversations.

Adams: You talk about some deeply personal loss in this book. Would you mind sharing some of that story and how it affected your decision to focus on this topic right now?

Webb: You know, when my husband and I decided to start a family, we thought it would be easy. And that was just not the case for us. I was pregnant nine times, and we have one child. We were seeing every doctor we could, we were at fertility centers, and we just kept being told over and over again that there was nothing wrong with either one of us. And I can’t tell you how soul-crushing it is to hear the words, “There’s nothing wrong with you,” and yet knowing that there’s clearly something wrong because we couldn’t seem to carry a pregnancy all the way through to term. Now, in hindsight, what’s likely is that there was some type of chromosomal abnormality. And if there was a chance to extract embryos or to create embryos before implantation, screen them, figure out which were the ones that were most optimized for success — so again, I’m not talking about enhancement, I’m just saying like, let’s just pick the one that’s most likely going to be carried through to term — that would have saved us years of heartache, and it would have saved the incredible strain on our marriage. And I guess going through that experience, what I hope for my own daughter is that when she’s ready to get pregnant, she has the means and the choice to choose IVF, with screening and with selection. I actually hope that that’s the case someday for everybody because miscarriage is really hard and we don’t talk about it in this country. We don’t talk about it at all. And, you know, the first time it happened, it was awful. I also didn’t realize that it’s pretty common. We just don’t talk about it. And so this is not about creating designer babies, this is about giving people like me optionality. And I think that’s probably a good thing going forward if we can make it equitable.

Related links: More insight from Kimberly Adams

In the book, Webb and her co-author lay out multiple scenarios of what a future with advanced synthetic biology might look like: underground communities doing trial runs for Mars colonies, pop-up restaurants that are effectively on-demand bioreactors putting out custom meals and a brochure for an imagined future fertility clinic laying out just how much you can engineer a child (that also includes the costs associated with various upgrades).

And check out the last time Webb was on the show, previewing some of her other predictions for 2022.

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