Our Plants Should Be Plants – The Health Care Blog



It looks like most of my healthcare Twitter buddies are having fun with themselves at HLTH2022, so I don’t suppose it much matters what I write about, because they’ll all be too busy to read it anyway.  That’s too bad, because I used to be sparked by an article on one in every of my favorite topics: synthetic biology.  

Elliot Hershberg, a Ph.D. geneticist who describes his mission as “to speed up the Century of Biology,” has an amazing article on his Substack: Atoms are local.  The important thing insight for me was his point that, while we’ve been recognizing the ability of biology, we’ve been going about it the fallacious way.  As a substitute of the industrialization of biology, he thinks, we must always be searching for the biologization of industry.

His point:

Many individuals default to a mindset of industrialization. But, why naively inherit a metaphor that dominated nineteenth century Britain? Biology is the final word distributed manufacturing platform. We’re keen to explore and make true future biotechnologies that enable people to more directly and freely make whatever they need where-ever they’re.

He cites Gingko CEO Jason Kelly’s 2019 tweet:

“X doesn’t grow on trees” … biology is so significantly better at manufacturing than any human-invented tech that we use it as an idiom totally free and abundant. if all of us do our job well in synthetic biology every part will grow on trees. 

Dr. Hershberg asks, “So…how can we get to a future where every part grows on trees?”

That’s an amazing query.  Remember, although the primary definition of a plant is usually about living organisms like trees, flowers, and grasses, the second definition is about industrial factories, as in “a spot where an industrial or manufacturing process takes place.”  How can we transform our grimy, polluting, resource-intensive factories into, well, trees?  

That’s the ability, the potential, of synthetic biology.  He points out: “Biology manages to adapt and grow all over the place and is able to each atomic precision and large scale. In other words, we inhabit a biosphere that’s capable of manufacturing good enough to satisfy our needs.”

Dr. Hershberg’s title “Atoms are local” comes from bioengineer Drew Endy mantra that “biology teaches us that atoms are local;” i.e., 

The leaves on a tree don’t come from a factory after which get shipped to where the tree goes to be and taped and stapled to the twigs and branches. The photons and molecules arrive where the biology goes to grow and the biology grows locally.

Dr. Hershberg expects that inside our lifetime we’re going to have DNA printers that produce any desired DNA sequence, and “desktop bioprinters” that use DNA sequences to print proteins, which could ultimately result in a “personal biomarker” that would, in Dr. Endy’s words. “enable people to more directly and freely make whatever they need where-ever they’re.” 

That’s a “wow.”


I’ll give a couple of examples of advances in synthetic biology in only the past couple weeks:

  • “MIT researchers have developed a latest option to precisely control the quantity of a specific protein that’s produced in mammalian cells.  This method might be used to finely tune the production of useful proteins, akin to the monoclonal antibodies used to treat cancer and other diseases, or other elements of cellular behavior.” 
  • Researchers from Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and MIT have developed “cells engineered to compute sophisticated functions — “biocomputers” of sorts,” thuis creating “genetic “devices” designed to perform computations like artificial neural circuits.”
  • Scientists on the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology have developed “bionic bacteria” that may deliver cancer-killing compounds precisely to tumors, and, once there, “you principally have a bit nano-factory that continues to release molecules that may be toxic to cancer cells,” says one in every of the authors.  

The sphere is advancing on multiple fronts, at dizzying rates – faster than we’re reimaging what we’d do with it.


Meanwhile, Stat’s Matthew Herper warns that “we’re not prepared for the subsequent wave of biotech innovation.”  Although he, too, is a believer that we’re living in “biology’s century, he fears:

the most important looming problem is that we are going to simply turn out to be lost and confused as to what works and what doesn’t, scuttling our own progress, wasting money, and missing opportunities to save lots of lives. That’s what happens when latest technologies in biology outpace our ability to evaluate them.

He worries that, specifically, our system of clinical trials is way too slow, way too expensive, and way too inconclusive to cope with the pace of innovation we’re seeing.  I like his analogy:

U.S. health care system tends to consider that inventing brand latest gadgets is the reply to every part. The result’s that we try to unravel problems by constructing faster and costlier Ferraris when what we really want are higher roads. Because of this, our sports cars find yourself stuck within the mud.

“Politicians and regulators outside the health care industry need to start out to take into consideration what success and failure seem like in medicine,” Mr. Herper suggests, and “We, as a society, will need to alter our understanding of what’s true and what just isn’t. The world’s going to be transformed — we will’t let our excited about it fall behind.”


Mr. Herper was making a really different point than Dr. Hershberg, but I feel the commonality is that, while we’ve embraced synthetic biology/biotech when it comes to industrializing biology, we still haven’t made that conceptual leap to biologization of industry.  How can we revamp, remake, our various industries – not only healthcare ones — to make use of biology because the core for production? 

As enterprise capitalist Tom Baruch predicts: “We’ll see synbio disrupt every industry, whether constructing materials, agriculture and food, chemicals, medicines, water treatment, and environmental engineering.”  

Dr. Hershberg believes that combining synthetic biology with the web implies that “the marginal costs and distribution costs of actual material goods within the physical world could come to approximate the prices of distributing software products on the Web.”  In other words, “one in every of the foremost lessons of biology is that planetary scale distributing manufacturing is feasible.”


If you happen to’re not taking note of synthetic biology, it’s essential be.  If you happen to’re not excited about how it will change your industry, you’re going to be disrupted by people who find themselves. And when you’re only excited about incremental changes, inside our existing conceptual models of what biology is and might do, you then’re not considering nearly sufficiently big.  

Trees as factories, for nearly anything we would like.  Prepare for it.  

Kim is a former emarketing exec at a significant Blues plan, editor of the late & lamented Tincture.io, and now regular THCB contributor.

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