In this episode of the McKinsey Global Institute’s Forward Thinking podcast, hosts Michael Chui and Anna Bernasek delve into the Bio Revolution with guests Jason Kelly of Ginkgo Bioworks and Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO).
An edited transcript of this episode follows. (Subscribe to the series on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.)
Forward Thinking on the Bio Revolution with Jason Kelly and Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath
Michael Chui: What’s the wildest technology you’ve encountered in a science fiction movie? Is it being able to cure a disease with a single treatment? Maybe having the clothes you wear have amazing characteristics from the natural world, like being the strongest spider silk, or eating food that’s tailored for your own body’s biochemistry. Whatever it is, chances are it’s already in the works to becoming a reality. For example, advances in biomachines and biocomputing are changing the relationship between biology and machines, it’s already becoming increasingly possible to use your own brain signals to control precise neuroprosthetics.
Anna Bernasek: Michael, it’s amazing, really. And even though the full impact may be years away, we’re seeing key applications right now, particularly in health and agriculture.
Michael Chui: Exactly. And over the past five to ten years, we’ve been seeing proof-of-concept focused experimentation emerge from the lab and move into the marketplace, particularly in healthcare and agriculture.
Anna Bernasek: And from there, it can really take off to other areas and even society more broadly.
Michael Chui: What does this mean? We’ve heard about the Industrial Revolution and the digital revolution. We’re now heading into a Bio Revolution. And this is going to transform the economy and society in five key ways. First, materials produced with biological means could be more sustainable and help us better manage our natural resources. Secondly, biological innovation has made R&D more precise, which will enable the spread of personalized medicine and precision agriculture. And third, our ability to reprogram life, both human and nonhuman organisms, is growing. This could lead to breakthroughs in disease prevention and treatment. It’s also allowing us to improve the yield of agriculture.
As if that weren’t enough, the discovery possibilities of research and development will likely increase due to automation technologies, like machine learning, and new sources of biological data. And finally, and what’s probably the most science-fiction-like impact, a new generation of biomachine interfaces is being developed that rely on connections between humans and computers. These have uses ranging from restoring sensory function to the brain to using DNA to store data for computing.
Anna Bernasek: It’s a lot to take in. Michael, you are one of the world’s leading experts. Right now, on the Bio Revolution, you just published this incredibly comprehensive report making sense of what’s happening.
Michael Chui: Well, you’re very kind for calling me an expert. But we did spend some time over the course of almost a year studying the potential of biology. And at the molecular level, this is at the level of cells and organisms. We also looked at how biology can connect with other types of technologies, and even using biology for computing. What we tried to do is understand what kind of impact that could have. And what we discovered was just the great breadth of impact that it could have—up to $2 trillion to $4 trillion within a couple of decades. For all those reasons, as well as the pace at which technology is changing, we really do think we’re right in the middle of a Biological Revolution.
Anna Bernasek: Okay, so what we’re going to be talking about on today’s podcast is all the solutions to today’s huge problems that confront us, whether it’s COVID or whether it’s climate or any of these things, the Bio Revolution really is the potential way out. Is that right?
Michael Chui: Yeah, I don’t know if it’s going to solve all our problems. But I think what we’ve discovered is that many of the problems that face us today have potential to have biological solutions.
Anna Bernasek: Yeah. And then with everything, of course, there are going to be risks.
Michael Chui: Well, there are these real risks editing life or programming life. It’s incredible that, in fact, you can think about the way that life has evolved, that there’s a code to it that we can reprogram. But at the same time, those risks are real. And some of these risks are like risks that we’ve seen in the digital realm. Questions about privacy, for instance, the fact that you don’t have to sequence an entire population to be able to identify a lot of people within a country if you have some genetic material. But then some of these risks are somewhat unique to biology. Life finds a way—it’s self-replicating, it tends to want to live on and create new generations. And so it doesn’t really respect country boundaries, for instance. And so if something gets out into the wild, into our ecosystem, will there be unintended consequences? We’ll need to think about that. And then if you actually manipulate human genes, and for very good reasons—a lot of the diseases that we suffer from at least have some genetic component—and we do have the technology to be able to manipulate those, but not perfectly. What does that mean, if we’re manipulating something that’s so tied up in who we are, which is our genetic makeup? And then, what does that actually pass on to future generations, if we actually start to do germline editing? And so I think a lot of these questions come to the fore as things that we need to manage. Now, what are the encouraging things? This field has a history of being proactive and understanding what’s possible from a scientific standpoint and then have real dialogue as a society. What is it that we want to allow? At what time?
Anna Bernasek: But can’t you imagine a room full of brains that have been grown, that are able to solve our problems and all that sort of thing? Anything, we could do anything.
Michael Chui: What is the science fiction you’ve been watching or reading?
Anna Bernasek: Actually, Michael, I don’t watch a ton of science fiction. But I do think about that movie Avatar, where they created this sort of hybrid human-avatar species. It just kind of got me thinking about all this.
Michael Chui: Well, that’s something we want to understand: both the potential for good and how to avoid the pitfalls. So, let’s start with a picture of the science that’s happening. Where might all these exciting advances lead? Well, let’s find out. Our guests today are two people doing truly amazing work literally on the very frontiers of where these advances are taking place. Jason Kelly is the founder of Ginkgo Bioworks, a biotech company that describes itself as “the organism company.” Jason, welcome to Forward Thinking.
Jason Kelly: Thanks for having me on, Michael.
Michael Chui: Jason, first of all, a trivia question. Why is it called Ginkgo Bioworks? And then what does it mean to be the organism company?
Jason Kelly: The way Ginkgo thinks about the world is we think of biology as something that can be programmed, sort of like you’d program a computer. And the reason that’s not a crazy idea is that inside every cell is digital code in the form of DNA, right? It’s As, Ts, Cs, and Gs, not zeros and ones, but you can read it with DNA sequencing or genomic, like the Human Genome Project. And you can write it with DNA synthesis and DNA printing. And if you can read and write code, and you have a machine that can run the code, sort of how we think of a cell, well, that’s programming, right? And so what Ginkgo is, is really a giant compiler and debugger for programming genetic code. And so, what comes out of that is newly programmed organisms, organisms that have had their genomes change to do new things. And so, we work with partners who want to have a cell kind of have a new app, a new function, and then we’ll program that into the genome. And so that’s sort of why we say we’re the organism company, because at the end of the day, what’s coming off our platform is an organism with a new genome. And the name—we wanted to have an organism in the name. You might remember, like high school biology, like kingdom, phylum, order, class, right? So it’s kingdom Plantae, phylum Ginkgoales. And it’s the only living remaining member of that entire phylum. And so, it’s a complete genetic freak of a tree, it was around when the dinosaurs were around, it’s considered a living fossil, it’s a super interesting plant. And the leaf is very iconic. It’s that fan-shaped leaf.
Anna Bernasek: What you’re saying is you really write biological software to operate the machinery of life, I guess. So, in a sense, it’s like a little bit like Microsoft, except that instead of programming PCs, you’re really programming cells.
Jason Kelly: Yeah, you are exactly right. And importantly, like Microsoft, our view is, the tools you would use to program Excel are the same, regardless of the end application, right? It didn’t matter if you were going to use a personal computer for a finance application or in a hospital system or logistics. At the end of the day, it should run on Windows, and you should use the similar types of programming tools to write the software for those different applications. That’s exactly how we see programming cells. Ginkgo is a horizontal platform company, like you’d have typically see in the tech industry. In other words, our platform, we have large partnerships, same exact platform, and about 50 different projects running on it now. So we do see ourselves very similarly.
Michael Chui: I’ve programmed computers before, so I know what ones and zeros are. Why do you say As, Ts, Gs, and Cs? Why only those letters when you program?
Jason Kelly: So here’s the math. The magic of biology is that we didn’t even discover the structure of DNA and everything until mid-last century, right? But once you opened up the cells, you found out that biology had essentially invented the same thing that we later humans came along and invented as the way to store information on computers, which is if you want to make a copy of some code, the easiest way to do it is to do it digitally, right? Because if I tell you 11000, and then you turn to the person next to you and you say 11000, we just transferred information without any loss, right? And so you break it into these digital things, a one or zero, a thing that that’s a single atomic element. It’s powerful for information transfer with fidelity. Biology invented the exact same thing, because it transfers information across generations. In other words, it wants to pass on genetic information to children, right? And the same exact approach, it’s digital, except in this case, these are four chemicals—adenine, thymine, guanine, and cytosine—that make up DNA, and you’re basically putting them together into a long chemical polymer, which reads like a piece of computer code. And you can think of it almost like the old computers that were like a piece of magnetic tape, or it would be like 00111 on one. Same thing here. It’s a piece of chemical tape, a TCC GGG that makes up the code of life.
Michael Chui: That’s amazing. We’re also joined today by Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath. She’s the president and CEO of the Biological Innovation Organization, which many of us know as BIO. Michelle, welcome.
Michelle McMurry-Heath: Oh, it’s wonderful to join you.
Michael Chui: So, BIO represents many different scientists and entities and organizations that are doing pioneering work on the forefront of the Biological Revolution. What are the goals of BIO?
Michelle McMurry-Heath: Well, at BIO, we’re all about advocating for science and for patients. Our organization was set up about 25 years ago, around the same time the biotechnology industry was really getting on its feet and really coming to fruition. And since that time, we’ve focused on what are the impediments to bringing the fruit of that innovation to patients and to consumers? So that’s all we do. We think about how to help scientists be creative and be successful.
Anna Bernasek: You’ve got a lot of policy experience; can you just tell us a little bit about the policy work that you’ve been involved with?
Michelle McMurry-Heath: Sure, I got the policy and politics bug when I was doing my MD-PhD, and I had a year of breeding transgenic mice. I can still remember walking to the vivarium on Saturdays and just watching my mice breed and having to change the breeding partners. And I thought, this isn’t taking all my time, I think I’m going to take some science policy courses in the meantime. And I really got to see that there were people focusing their attention on asking the questions of who funds research, why do they fund the research that they fund? Who gets to make the decisions about what scientific discoveries are pursued? I’ve been obsessed with that question ever since. And so I’ve gotten to address it on Capitol Hill working for Senator [Joe] Lieberman, working in the think tank space when I was starting a program for the Aspen Institute, and then at the Food and Drug Administration as well, in the Center for Devices and Radiological Health. It’s been a fun career of seeing all the different hurdles that innovations must go through to get to patients. And figuring out which ones can be expedited, which ones can be altered so that patients have competence and stay safe, but they get the breakthroughs that they’re so desperately waiting on.
Michael Chui: That’s terrific to hear. I think we need more and more scientific expertise in policy. I appreciate all the contributions that you’ve made there. And by the way, my dad’s a researcher. He’s a mouse guy, as it turns out, in his career too. So it’s nice to make that connection. What is it that motivated you, other than you wanted to get out of the mouse lab?
Michelle McMurry-Heath: I was raised by two public health leaders in the Bay Area in the ’70s and ’80s. And both of my parents focused on how you get healthcare to people who perhaps couldn’t afford it. My father in the psychological space, my mother in public health, nursing. I grew up with that really being in the water, that you try to give back, particularly to the African American community, and you try to make sure that patients get better. Then I started to see how exciting lab science was, and how interesting it is to not just do an experiment that’s been done a million times before, but to pursue the types of questions that Jason’s talking about, questions that have never been answered. And who can make such a difference in people’s lives? Once they are answered. Then I started to see that it’s not just about trying to improve people’s access to the medicines we have today. The most important question is making sure we’re improving access to the medicines that are coming tomorrow, and that we’re doing everything we can to make tomorrow come as fast as possible.
Michael Chui: It’s amazing how our family experiences inform our professional lives as well. And just following on that thread, the way we pursue solutions as part of our personal area of interest is what I’ve heard. You’ve also said that this distribution of scientific progress is the social justice issue of the 21st century. Can you tell us what you mean by that?
Michelle McMurry-Heath: Well, it really harkens back to those communities I grew up near in Oakland, California. I saw communities that were vulnerable, that were underserved, that did face challenges, but their challenges were multifactorial. They needed access to clean air and water, they needed freedom from the fear of climate change, they needed healthcare, they needed medical breakthroughs, because the healthcare that was available couldn’t necessarily serve all their needs. And so, if you think about that, almost every big issue we face today—global warming, clean air and water, access to nutritious foods, medical solutions—all those big unknown questions and big needs can be served by biotechnology. If we think that is true, then we must figure out an equitable way to distribute that research and the fruit of that research once it’s achieved. So if we’re going to bring communities out of poverty, if we’re going to have equal opportunity, then we have to make sure that we are spreading the scientific butter around, we have to make sure that the scientific progress is reaching everyone who needs it, particularly the vulnerable communities that may need it more than anyone else.
Anna Bernasek: Part of getting that access is making sure that you reduce costs, right? There’s other stuff, isn’t there, that’s involved to roll out the Bio Revolution to benefit everybody?
Michelle McMurry-Heath: Well, of course, it’s complex—we need confidence in our breakthroughs and our technology. That means rational regulation that answers patients’ needs and concerns but also doesn’t produce undue delays. We need financing systems that pay attention, not just to how we bring down the cost of a pharmaceutical that’s available today but that are future oriented, so that we’re also trying to achieve those pharmaceuticals up tomorrow as quickly as possible. Scientists are doing the yeoman’s part of this work. I mean, you heard from Jason how his commitment to his science and his research is bringing down the cost of some very critical breakthroughs in biotechnology. And that’s happening constantly, and scientists are constantly improving. I would just hope we get to the point where our policy makers have as quick a rate of improvement and have success that our scientists have had.
Michael Chui: So how can we ensure that policy and regulation can keep up? You know, as with the pace of scientific progress—it’s moving quickly.
Michelle McMurry-Heath: Unlike scientific research, policy responds to demand. When you’re a scientist working in a lab—and I have spent over a decade at the bench, I know this process—you may want an answer like nothing else, you may really want it to happen, but your desire means absolutely nothing. Because it’s up to the science. And it’s up to your creativity. And it’s up to the ability to get the experiments to work. But policy listens to people. What we really need is a grassroots movement of people who understand the importance of science in their lives, and who demand that policymakers show the political will and backbone to get the solutions to them. And that is something I think those of us who communicate about science and who get to speak to different aspects of the public can really help us achieve.
Michael Chui: Jason, Michelle just said you’re a terrific scientific communicator. How do you see this playing out? How do we get the regulation policy to move at the pace necessary so we can capture the benefits of the Bio Revolution?
Jason Kelly: I find that comment on policy really striking. As you look at what’s happening around COVID-19, where we have this sort of unprecedented moment where biotechnology policy is on the minds of the public in a way, I think, certainly in my lifetime. I’ve never seen before. How do you think about that as an opportunity or challenge for some of the topics we’re discussing here on policy?
Michelle McMurry-Heath: I think COVID is the crucible for our industry. This is the moment where we either show that science can unlock the future and is important to everyone’s lives and can be delivered in an equitable way, or we don’t. And if we fail, it will set us back decades. But I really think it’s within our reach. Obviously, the science is going gangbusters. We at BIO have been tracking all the COVID-related development programs in the industry. And just since January, the industry started over 720 product development programs targeted at COVID, over 180 programs just trying to achieve a COVID vaccine. And they’re showing unprecedented success. We’ve got nine vaccine candidates in late phase two or phase three clinical trials inside of nine months, when the previous record for a vaccine development was four years for the mumps vaccine. So the science is going very fast. Now it’s up to those of us who interface between the scientists and the policy makers to make sure that policy makers hold up their end of the bargain. And what do I mean by that? They need to adhere to the highest level of scientific integrity and let the scientific process unfold at its own pace. They need to not play political football with either the regulatory process around the vaccines and therapeutics for COVID or the distribution of it. And they need to stand up and be incredibly brave about access and ensuring access to COVID therapies and vaccines. It’s critical that we do all three of those steps. And if we do, I think will emerge on the other side of this with a different public understanding of science. The head of MassBio said the other day, his son has cystic fibrosis and knows what it’s like to wait on a scientific breakthrough. And he said, “Dad, I feel like for the first time, the average American knows what it feels like to wait for a cure.” And so we just must be sensitive to the fact that everyone is in this waiting game with us and respond to what everyone is waiting for.
Jason Kelly: Michelle nicely described this COVID crucible, I think that’s 100 percent true. We have a brand called Concentric that’s doing workplace in-school testing. And so we’ve been really close to this. Yeah, 100 percent I think this is a crucible, a unique moment for policy and engaging with the public on biotechnology during COVID. Since Michelle does such a nice job, I’ll answer your question sort of pre-COVID—what I would have told you is, as the cost of biotechnology work is falling, with technologies like we’re developing Ginkgo and other places, what you’re seeing is biotech starting to move into a broader range of markets than just therapeutics, which is where people mostly engage with it today. So, for example, you’re seeing folks working on animal-free leathers, you have things like the Impossible Burger, which is a veggie burger. You bite into this thing—Impossible Whopper at Burger King—and it bleeds, right? It’s a bleeding veggie burger, right? You know, where’s the blood come from? Right, it’s not a lot of blood in plants. And what Impossible did was, they took the gene for hemoglobin, which makes blood red, and they took brewer’s yeast, like they use to make beer. And they programmed it by adding that hemoglobin gene, and then you brew it up, you make the heme, no cow involved, you put it into that veggie burger. And now it smells right, tastes right. And they’re serving at Burger King. And so that’s a piece of biotechnology that the public is engaging with. And if you look at how Impossible has approached this, they’re very transparent on their website, they show pictures of the fermenters making the hemoglobin, they explain the process of how they did it with the genetic engineering. That’s a very new way for the public to engage with this technology. And they feel the benefit, right? It’s a veggie burger that doesn’t taste like cardboard, that’s a real benefit to people. I think that’s part of the way you create the sort of grassroots support that Michelle was talking about, as you start to engage consumers and people, and in more ways around biotechnology than just when they’re sick.
Michelle McMurry-Heath: Jason is right on the money with this, it’s so critically important. Imagine if you could engineer fruits and vegetables that taste better, look more attractive, have more protein, have a better nutrition profile, and are actually engineered to grow very well in low-light, low-soil hydroponic settings. It would be so wonderful, because you can imagine every deserted strip mall in a rural community or an inner city converted to a hydroponic farm that could make these low-cost, nutritious and bountiful and high-variety crops and sell them in the local markets. And so you’d erase food deserts overnight. This is the kind of power of this new age of biotechnology, which is just so exciting and thrilling.
Anna Bernasek: Is there any sort of fundamental limit on our capabilities with this?
Jason Kelly: Absolutely. There are limits that are temporal. In other words, just like a computer today can do a lot more than a computer back in the ’50s because of improvements in our ability to design and program these machines, there’ll be a similar trend here where, as we understand more about how biology works, and as our tools for programming it improve, you’ll be able to do more things. But absolutely today there are definitely many, many, many products that you can imagine biology being capable of doing, and you don’t begin to know how to design it to do that, right? Honestly, if you just look at biology, like as a technologist, think how crazy it is, right? Like you plant a seed, you add air, water, and sunlight. And this thing self-assembles a plant. It starts building solar panels and all this—think about the level of molecular manufacturing. If Apple invented that thing tomorrow, we’d all lose our minds, right? But we kind of write it off, because we’ve seen it. You can see all this potential in biology. But our ability to program is extraordinarily limited. We don’t really understand a lot of how it works. And the tools to make changes are still really hamstringing you. We have a lot of room to go, in my opinion. I think this will be the technology of the next century here. And we’ll just keep getting better every decade.
Anna Bernasek: So that brings me to Jason. The most fundamental question for me is, at what point can we really say the Bio Revolution has arrived? What is really going to change our lives from this?
Jason Kelly: I’m obviously biased. I’m a fan here. But my dad’s a type one diabetic. He’s been taking insulin since he was in his teens. For probably the first 15 years of it, he was taking insulin that you would get from pigs. So it wasn’t human, wasn’t perfect, he had certain side effects. And then along comes Genentech, first biotech product, human insulin, and now you get the exact same stuff. And today, half of your therapeutic drugs are made with biotechnology, The impact of biotechnology already, just in medicine, is astounding, on people. But what I think is the new thing that’s coming is a year-over-year compounding technical improvement in our ability to use this technology. You see it very obviously in things like the cost to sequence a human genome, which went from $100 million with the Human Genome Project in 2000. Today, you can get machines that are between $100 and $1,000, will sequence a human genome. So you’ve seen a one-million-fold cost reduction in reading DNA over that period of time. That blows the pants off the rate of improvement in computers, and that’s giving us access to the code. You’re seeing a similar rate of cost drop in writing DNA, not quite as steep, but over that period of time, probably about a 1,000- to 10,000-fold drop in cost. These tools are getting better every year, which means you’re going to see more and more applications come out of it. That’s really the fundamentally new thing, is just that compounding technical capability.
Michael Chui: So we found all the amazing tooling, which is increasing at this exponential rate. But then how does that get from the lab into the type of impact on our lives that you talked about? Whether it’s in food or agriculture or apparel or what have you. Michelle, you’ve spent time on the bench as a lab scientist, you spent time as an executive in a big company. And now you’re running an organization that looks across all of these different sectors in places where biology could have an impact. What does it take to get from the lab into the marketplace, or into the hands of people who can use some of these products and services?
Michelle McMurry-Heath: Well, it takes a healthy biotech ecosystem. And by that I mean the investors, the businesspeople, the entrepreneurs, the risk takers, to really set out on those quests that are so important. But I think there’s a bigger point here. When I started my career in science, I assumed I would go into academia, because I really thought that was the noblest way to pursue science. And I think sometimes that is still the public perception. What’s also noble, too, are the companies that turn out 95 percent of all drugs and solutions for patients we have today. We invest tons of resources and time and emotion in academic medicine and science. As we should—it’s critically important. But we should share some of that regard for the huge amount of risk and courage it takes for our entrepreneurs in the biotech space, because without the companies that are really focused on making pragmatic solutions for patients and customers, none of that science would turn into real products that change lives.
Michael Chui: Jason, could you talk a little bit from your perspective about these real products that can change lives? It’s one thing to synthesize heme at lab scale. And then it’s a very different thing to have millions of burgers, for instance, just to use one of those examples. What are some of the challenges you had to overcome? Because it seems like sometimes, we celebrate the invention, and then there’s a huge process to have impact in the world.
Jason Kelly: It’s going to vary a lot depending on the type of application. So if you’re talking about a therapeutic, then it’s the cycle people are very familiar with—trying to get safety and efficacy proven in a clinical trial. That’s really the big hurdle. They’re manufacturing. And that scenario is relatively straightforward. If it’s something like a food product, it’s almost the opposite. You do safety studies and have a good sense. And if you’re using things that already come from nature, you’re not introducing a new product, the challenge is the manufacturing, right? You’re saying, that’s a lot of burgers, the price of meat is very inexpensive. You’re trying to compete with existing products out there, the same holds true. Famously, we had challenges and things like biofuels that never were able to really compete with petrochemical counterparts. In certain markets, it’ll be a manufacturing problem. And then in other markets, it’ll be like any other consumer product, like, say, high-end leather, right? You know, if you could make a bio-based leather—and there’s several companies working on this, doing amazing work now, from things like mushrooms and stuff like that—the question then is, does the consumer, who wants to have an animal-free, designer leather bag that they’re paying thousands of dollars for, perceive it as the same quality? It’s a little more like Tesla selling that first roadster. Can you capture the consumer imagination? So you’ll see these consumer products that like any other consumer product—now the challenges are convincing people to buy it. And so I think you’ll see a wide, wide variety of go-to-market challenges, but it won’t look any different than any other traditional engineering field that’s bringing out new products all the time. I think at the end of the day, we’re just a little earlier in the journey when it comes to biological engineering. You know, we’ve been doing mechanical engineering for 400 years and electrical engineering for 150 and computer science for 50. And now here comes biological engineering. Well, we only invented genetic engineering in, essentially, 1978. So it’s early in the show.
Michael Chui: Well, let me just finish with one other question for both of you, as we get ready to get into the fun lightning round. But I think some people hear about all these amazing advances but then are also nervous. They think about the ethical concerns, the ecological concerns, or what it might mean for us as humans, and things that we might be manipulating when we talk about programming life. Michelle, let’s start with you. How do you respond to people who have this concern about this, this seems like we’re playing God?
Michelle McMurry-Heath: I think scientists always need to be very respectful of human life and the ethics of how best to use technology. But I think that ethical debate must be informed by solid scientific understanding. I think you can see abuse and misuse in almost any human pursuit, doesn’t matter the field. It only matters the ramifications. And so I think scientists are, by selection or by training, cautious, skeptical, questioning, and insistent. And that gives me hope that we will continue to see our technologies used in a very responsible way.
Michael Chui: Thank you. And Jason, how do you respond when people are amazed at what’s possible but then are worried about it, too? Should people be concerned about powerful technologies and whether they’re going to be deployed in their interest?
Jason Kelly: I think that’s a very healthy concern for people to have. And there’s no pat answer. If you look back across any powerful technology in human history, they’ve been used for good and ill. I think there’s a few tools at your disposal. As the folks developing the technology, I think having a foundation of transparency is important. Three or four years ago, the US was debating GMO labeling. I had a New York Times editorial that said, I run a GMO company, I think we should label GMOs. And the argument was, consumers are concerned about what technology is in their products, and we’re saying, oh, “You can’t know if my technology is in there”. And what does that tell somebody? It tells them that this must be bad, I should fear it. Why don’t they want me to know about it? This is the wrong way to engage with the public. The right way to engage with the public is, we’re proud of this technology. We want to engage with people who care how their products are made, because fundamentally, biology is a better way to make everything right. It’s the original renewable, recyclable technology. Of course, you should want to buy GMOs, and I think transparency as a footing is one thing that can help you. The other is who is building the technology? So you’re seeing, with this big challenge around the great technology platforms on the software side today, places like Facebook and Twitter that are coming to this reckoning of, I’ve built this powerful platform, and am I responsible for what people do with it? I think when it comes to biotechnology, we ultimately must be responsible for how our platforms are used. And importantly, the developers of the platforms need to care about that. We can’t say, hey, we’re just a tool. It’s not our fault, what you do with us, so I think we want to care. And then, importantly, we want to have a diverse set of folks building those technologies. Because the range of people that could be impacted by it is extraordinarily broad, right. If you think about who’s going to be impacted, biotechnology does not respect borders. So you want to have folks from the Global South involved in the development of new agricultural biotechnology, that seems like a great idea, right? You want to have under-represented genders and minorities, who could be disproportionately affected by a new technology in a negative way. You want them involved in the building, so that they can help you see around those corners and embed their experiences in the technology itself. That’s the most powerful solve is that as the way the technology is built, safety and responsibility are baked in. I think that starts with having a broad set of folks building it. So those are that sort of tools I see—transparency and a diverse set of scientists and engineers involved in the construction of the technology.
Michael Chui: So it does come back to science fiction to a certain extent. The old “Spider-Man” thing, with great power comes great responsibility, I suppose. So if you have a few moments, why don’t we go the lightning round if you’re willing to play? So it’d be quick, quick questions, quick answers. I’ll ask each of you, you’ll go back and forth. If you don’t like a question or don’t have an answer, feel free to pass. You’re ready to go. Sure.
Jason Kelly: Rock and roll.
Michael Chui: All right. Terrific. Michelle, let’s start with you. What’s your favorite source of information about biological innovations?
Michelle McMurry-Heath: Actually, STAT. I’m loving STAT these days.
Jason Kelly: Twitter.
Michael Chui: What is your favorite piece of fiction that touches on biology? Could be TV, movies, reading. Jason?
Jason Kelly: Jurassic Park. No question.
Michelle McMurry-Heath: That’s a great one. I don’t know, I’m still waiting on the teleporter from Star Trek.
Michael Chui: It’s good to wonder how that’ll feel. Michelle, who is your favorite real-life hero in biology?
Michelle McMurry-Heath: Oh, Frances Kelsey, who is the FDA reviewer that stood up against thalidomide in the ’70s.
Jason Kelly: That’s a good one. I’ll say Rosalind Franklin off the cuff. Since, you know, figuring out structured DNA is sort of the original biological innovation. So it’s awesome.
Michael Chui: Yeah. And should have gotten a piece of the Nobel. Absolutely agree. Jason, what biological application will arrive sooner than people think?
Jason Kelly: I would say the animal-free products. Generally, everything that comes from an animal now is not in a very short period.
Michelle McMurry-Heath: I think new micro crops that have these amazing types of appeal in nutrition.
Michael Chui: Michelle, what biological application will take longer than people think?
Michelle McMurry-Heath: I think repairing the human genome and our complex chronic diseases. It’s been elusive. I think the complexity keeps revealing itself.
Jason Kelly: Yeah. Anything that interfaces with humans. Fill in the blank.
Michael Chui: Jason, if you could wave a magic wand and change one thing about how the science and business of biology is conducted today, what would it be?
Jason Kelly: I guess it would be to have the public open their eyes to not take for granted biology. Not just engineer biology, but just the biology that’s out there in the world, making our atmosphere and cleaning our water and basically serving as the low-level technological support system for life on this planet. We take it completely for granted.
Michelle McMurry-Heath: I would have every high school student take a biotechnology entrepreneurship class before they graduate.
Michael Chui: What job would you be doing if you weren’t doing what you’re doing today?
Michelle McMurry-Heath: I’d be a costume designer for Broadway plays. How’s that?
Jason Kelly: I always tell my wife that I want to be a gentleman scholar with her just supporting me while I do my, quote, research.
Michael Chui: One final question. What is one piece of advice you’d have for listeners of this podcast?
Jason Kelly: I’ll do the COVID thing. You know, I think we’re all going through a uniquely hard time. It’s been over 100 years since biology did this to us previously. It is a first for everybody, and so we should all be looking after one another’s backs. We’re living through a historical moment.
Michelle McMurry-Heath: And I’ll say the flip side of that, which is, whenever we have moments like this, it’s a time to reflect on what’s most important in your life and I would say, do what you love and do it boldly. Because life’s too short.
Anna Bernasek: Good advice.
Michael Chui: This has been extremely interesting, encouraging, and wonderful to speak to both of you. Michelle and Jason, thanks so much for spending time with us.
Anna Bernasek: Fun conversation.
Michelle McMurry-Heath: Thank you.
Jason Kelly: Thanks for having us.