Genetic Engineering Is a Lot Like Cooking (You Just Have to Be a Genius to Do It)
Po Bronson and Arvind Gupta in Conversation with
Andrew Keen on Keen On
The coronavirus pandemic is dramatically disrupting not only our daily lives but society itself. This show features conversations with some of the world’s leading thinkers and writers about the deeper economic, political, and technological consequences of the pandemic. It’s our new daily podcast trying to make longterm sense out of the chaos of today’s global crisis.
On today’s episode, IndieBio’s Po Bronson and Arvind Gupta, coauthors of Decoding the World, discuss the science of our future.
From the episode:
Andrew Keen: That’s why I like having guys like you on the show, because you’re not just schlepping out the same old Silicon Valley clichés. You have a list in your book of Silicon Valley clichés about living on Mars and robots taking all our jobs and blah blah blah. But the one that is particularly intriguing to me, and I’d like to get your take particularly of, is on CRISPR—on codes that create new life. How does that fit in to your rematerialization thesis, Arvind?
Arvind Gupta: That is one of the theses of how we’re rematerializing the world. We take bacteria, fungus, these living organisms, and then add genes to them so they make these new products, whether it’s heme to make a plant-based burger taste more like an actual hamburger from a cow. All of these foods will taste better and better and better and more like the thing that we love that’s destroying the planet. And then we will be able to make the choice to not destroy the planet in what we consume. Gen Z and millennials will do it for that, and boomers and Gen X will do it for the health benefits.
And so, going back to CRISPR, what CRISPR won’t do is create a new human species. It’s not going to allow us to create designer babies.
Andrew Keen: We’re not gonna have designer Peter Thiels then, right?
Arvind Gupta: No, we definitely will not.
Andrew Keen: Po, with your particular genius of combining popular culture and sophisticated science, you compare genetic engineering with a cooking show. Maintaining our theme of food and vegetarian hamburgers, what’s the relationship between genetic engineering and CRISPR and cooking shows?
Po Bronson: People think genetic engineering must be incredibly hard and complicated and technical, so I thought I would write a chapter about genetic engineering, a new way to do kidney transplants, as if it were a TV cooking show, to show them quite the opposite. That for genetic engineering, the steps of doing it are literally the same steps you would do in a kitchen on a cooking show. You’re going to order your ingredients. You’re going to mix them. You’re gonna let them sit a little bit. Then you’re gonna apply energy—normally heat, but in this case a little bit of electricity—and then you’re gonna wait a while for it to sort of firm up on you and all be done. And in fact, those are the steps in the lab of doing genetic engineering. That’s what you do.
But here’s the thing. What it also highlights is the absurdity of the analogy, too, which is that doing the genetic engineering is actually quite easy. It’s knowing what to edit, what to engineer, that is actually still very rarified knowledge. People say we should be worried about CRISPR because it can be dangerous. It’s like saying fire is hot. Like, “In the future, people have these little fire sticks and they’ll be able to light a fire in their own house! It’ll be really dangerous!” It’s like, okay, we all have these little fire sticks on our mantle. No big deal. Knowing what to edit is actually very, very hard and takes a particular kind of genius to figure out.
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Po Bronson is Managing Director of IndieBio. His science journalism has been honored with nine national awards, and cited in 185 academic journals and 503 books. He’s the author of seven bestselling books, including the #1 New York Times bestseller What Should I Do With My Life?
Arvind Gupta is the founder of IndieBio, the world’s largest biotech accelerator, and a partner at Mayfield. Previously he was design director of IDEO in Shanghai. He has a degree in genetic engineering from University of California, Santa Barbara. In the past two decades he has been a BASE jumper, big wall climber, and jiu-jitsu grappler.