About Time for a New Pair of Genes

Better SXSW through DNA modification

Dr. Andrew Ellington
Dr. Andrew Ellington (Photo by John Anderson)

You think science might eventually help your body grow a new liver? Maybe longer legs, smoother skin, or violet eyes to die for?

"Synthetic biology," goes the description of South by Southwest Interactive's Designing Living Things panel, "aims to re-engineer living cells to sustainably produce fuels, medicines, and materials." The specifics of those aims and how to reach them will be part of what the panel talks about, with input from UCLA's Christina Agapakis, Daisy Ginsberg of Synthetic Aesthetics, Gingko BioWorks founder Jason Kelly, and Patrick Boyle, a synthetic biologist with Harvard Medical School.

This will be some eye-opening palaver, and this is why we've already got the panel scheduled in our digital calendars, somewhere between meeting a software designer for a Shiner at the Jackalope and trying to keep our visiting cousin from blatantly stalking Radiolab's Jad Abumrad.

But we also want to hear about something more than just the serious and globally important aims of biotech before we go. We want to whet our appetite with news of genetic manipulations that are more locally focused, that would impact the average Austinite on a day-to-day level – especially on a SXSW day-to-day level. And this is why we leveraged the immediate-connection machine of Facebook and had a friend introduce us to a bona fide genetic engineer at the University of Texas' Center for Systems and Synthetic Biology.

"I'm the Fraser Professor of Biochemistry with UT's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry," Dr. Andrew Ellington tells us. "That just means that I spend an awful lot of time thinking about and working on genetic engineering and biotechnology. My primary focus is on evolutionary engineering."

Austin Chronicle: And you've lived in Austin since 1998, so you pretty much know the Austin vibe, right?

Andrew Ellington: Right. I may not participate in it much, but I know it.

AC: So, using technology currently or soon available, take an average human being. What portions of them would you engineer to survive better in the Austin environment?

AE: First and foremost, especially in respect to South by Southwest, I think you're going to need some manner of hearing augmentation. It'd be great if we weren't all slowly going deaf from either noise pollution or attending too many Sixth Street venues, and there are ways one can imagine doing that. In particular, there's a sort of revolution under way with a type of molecule called siRNA. And, like its name implies, the RNA is the RNA that lives in us – and the "si" is just an engineered variant that can help to change the expression of our genes, to transform properties – such as the ability to hear better or to be better buffered against loud noises. So that's one thing. And there's clearly going to be a market, as there was in the Sixties with drugs, for recreational siRNA. It's not just that you can augment or protect your hearing, you can also change your brain chemistry in a huge variety of ways.

AC: Oh, the kids would eat that shit up.

AE: Well, there's another thing. Austin tends to pride itself on being a young town, but in fact it's gray: There's a lot of Austin that's been here a while and hopes to be here a lot longer. And so life extension would be another modification. When I think through scenarios of unlicensed uses of siRNA – which I have no intention of doing – I see a powerful technology that's waiting, that's bound to happen, and it'll be driven by wealthy nonagenarians who want to go the next yard. Already there've been experiments with worms – and you might say, "Well, we're not worms, who the hell cares?" – but, really, we're not all that different in many ways. And they've had life extensions of twenty to fifty percent – by siRNA treatment. So I'd see being able to enjoy those concerts way into the future as another aspect of a genetically engineered Austin experience. Those are the three things that come immediately to mind: You protect your hearing, you have some fun, and you have it for a long time.

For an extended Q&A, see "Gene Genie," Picture in Picture blog, March 1.

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DNA modification, Andrew Ellington, Designing Living Things, siRNA, biotechnology, Christina Agapakis, Daisy Ginsberg, Synthetic Aesthetics, Gingko BioWorks, Jason Kelly, Patrick Boyle, evolutionary engineering

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