From the Editors
Brave New Bio
Five
Questions
for Siddhartha
Mukherjee
Author of "The Gene"
Unnecessary Modifications
Humans & Nature vs. Humans

   A single cockroach will ruin the appeal of a bowl of cherries, but a cherry does nothing at all for a bowl of cockroaches. As observed by psychologist Paul Rozin, an expert on disgust, humans are hardwired to avoid being grossed out.

Yet we love to fight poison with poison, throwing bleach on everything and packaging oranges in plastic. We’re creating our own dystopian cesspit out of our filth and excess, and the planet is trying to survive it. If humans were to vanish tomorrow, within ten years there would likely be no cockroaches left in New York City.

Turns out, they need us to survive.

In his thought-experiment-turned-novel, "The World Without Us,” Alan Weisman speculates what will happen if nature retook the earth. In vermin-less Manhattan, land-dwelling creatures would grow to the size of SUV’s, and lumber around the island’s forests and streams, as they once did. It is an oddly beautiful and serene scene.

Modern civilization has been designed against nature. (We can’t seem to forgo decadence even for our own well-being.) When it comes to creating the future, the greenest thing we can do is, seemingly, nothing. But there are new materials and technologies—ones that harness the beauty and efficiency of nature.

A company founded by a Stanford researcher has created an alternative to the toxic manufacturing of concrete, which creates a pound of CO2 for each pound produced. By mimicking the development of coral reefs, Calera is able to create calcium carbonate much like the reefs do—by capturing CO2 rather than creating it.

New Lab member Modern Meadow, as you’ll read below, is creating real leather derived from yeast—no harm done to animals, and also better for the planet.

Nature has generously conducted billions of years of R&D on efficient design and sustainability, creating things that give more than they take—centuries of success and failure are captured in amber and limestone for us to learn from and iterate on.

This just might be the carbon-orgy walk-of-shame period of human history: Something we can look back on, hardly recognizing ourselves, and shrink away with a new kind of disgust. We have the opportunity to make this inspired thinking the norm. Maybe we can all stick around without going full Walden.

---The Editors (David, Molly & Mari)---

What does “natural” mean? There's a tendency to imagine the natural world–dirt, bugs, lemurs–and, separately, the human world, with warheads, plastic bags, and Cheetos. But of course it’s all part of just one system: a tangled Indra’s net, and we're figuring out how it all fits together. A smartphone is no less the product of a biological, physical process than a turnip.


Engineers and entrepreneurs are increasingly looking away from textbooks and to nature for inspiration for new products and design. Our bones contain architectural tricks that could strengthen skyscrapers. Sharkskin-inspired swimsuits made headlines during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, after world records were annihilated by swimmers wearing them. Labeling the biomimetic suits "Technology Doping," the Olympic committee banned their use.

New Lab is home to a pair of companies that, each in its own way, are taking some of nature’s best inventions to the next level.

Leather is the ultimate signifier of sexiness. James Dean; Grace Jones. Hot. Less sexy? Uh, cow farts. Methane from cattle is an outsize contributor to global warming. New Lab member Modern Meadow envisions not only a less murderous process to make shoes and jackets—but a far less noxious and sustainable one.

"The idea of leather itself, for us, is actually limiting because leather is essentially a found material, a byproduct of the meat industry," says Modern Meadow’s chief creative officer Suzanne Lee.

She continues: "It comes in a predetermined size and shape. It comes with scars and scratches from the way the animals were raised. It's an incredibly inefficient material when you're trying to make a product because there's so much waste, anywhere from 30 to 80 percent."

Modern Meadow specializes in the oldest known programming language: DNA. Its lab induces yeast cells to grow collagen through a process they call biofabrication. And it’s not one-size-fits-all: a leather couch should be rigid; a handbag soft. Modern Meadow can customize the DNA instructions in their bio-factory to fit specific use cases.

"When you're growing collagen itself, that enables you to build materials in completely new ways," Lee says. "What happens if you have leather in a liquid form?"

Modern Meadow has done exactly this—creating a material that can be any density, hold any shape, and exist in both liquid and solid form. In October, after five years of research and development, the company introduced the first generation of its biofabricated leather materials at the Museum of Modern Art—they remain on display through January, 2018.

"Now the materials have new aesthetic and performance properties," Lee says.

But back to those gassy cows, for a moment. The production of a single pound of beef requires several thousand gallons of water, whereas cricket farming uses scarcely any.

Anyone passing the Brooklyn Navy Yard docks in the last year is likely to have glimpsed a white, spiked structure that could be mistaken for a punk-rock igloo. Instead, it’s a cricket shelter by Terreform One, New Lab’s only nonprofit futurist think-tank. Terreform works with clients to reimagine buildings, infrastructure and public spaces. What if we stopped attempting to halt rising sea levels and started designing Manhattan's streets like Venice?

"Cities themselves, those are hundred year plans. My grad students’ grad students will be solving for that," says Terreform co-founder Mitchell Joachim, an MIT and Harvard alum who now teaches at NYU. "But we develop these arguments to stand the test of time, and be teased and tweaked so that others can add their voices and adjust as these ideas go along."

The cricket structure, teeming with tens of thousands of insects, is a reimagining of a standard emergency shelter. To solve for potential food shortages, the shelter houses both humans and crickets (a potent protein source that, by UN estimates, is eaten by over two billion people per year).

Today Terreform's working with a construction group in Soho to design a building that "rewilds New York": a seven-story structure with windowed walls that would function as a sanctuary for thousands of endangered monarch butterflies. Terreform has designed a sensing system to monitor the monarchs’ health on-site.

"We're trying to train technology to care for an organism that's very fragile," Joachim says.

He’s talking about butterflies, but might as well be speaking of the earth itself.

Read More
The X Makes the Man (*A Not Entirely Scientific Graph)
The X Makes the Man (*A Not Entirely Scientific Graph)
Unnecessary Modifications
Unnecessary Modifications
Q&A with Siddhartha Mukherjee

A cancer physician and researcher, Dr. Mukherjee won the Pulitzer Prize for his book, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. We’re reading his latest, The Gene: An Intimate History. (We highly recommend it.)

1. We are interested in the future of technology and human experience—we feel that your book The Gene has a lot to say about this. As we get closer to mapping our own genetic futures, do you think we’re all pre-survivors of a trans-human utopia, or a dystopia? As we’ve started to unleash powerful capacities to interrogate genes, particularly using deep-learning tools, I think there is a sense that there will be many more pre-survivors based on genetic predictions. And by this I mean that more of us will become survivors of diseases we haven’t yet had. 2. Can you talk a bit more about the intersection of deep learning and gene editing? How CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing technology intersects with deep-learning is really quite an open question. Right now, CRISPR/Cas9 is a precision tool for making, usually, changes in single genes, one gene at a time. That’s what its advantage is—it’s an exquisite precision technology that allows you to make direct changes to the genome. The arena where machine learning is immediately intersecting with all of this is not in writing or changing the genome—but in reading the genome, and in explaining to us how genetic variation can contribute to human variation, including variation in disease. 3. In terms of the human genome, what does it mean to have intellectual property? Is the data we get from 23andMe genetic IP, so to speak? The courts have had an evolving understanding of this. Generally speaking, the courts in the United States have thought about genetic sequence information as parts of the body, or parts of nature. And in general, IP around parts of the body or parts of nature has been hard to do from the IP perspective. But an algorithm which creates the pattern out of genomic information is not a part of nature—it is a manipulation of nature. So those algorithms can very well be proprietary. Now, the separate question is, what’s the value of that? What’s the commercial value of this? 4. When CRISPR hits it prime, do you foresee there being some kind of recipe for desirability that one could follow as a germline intervention early on?  For powerful single-gene mutations, I can conceive of this in the future. You can imagine that you’d not want to bear a child carrying a mutation that would eventually cause some unfortunate disease with extraordinary future suffering. That part lies in the realm of imagination. But what doesn’t lie in the realm of the imagination is what to do with most human diseases, which will end up having not 1-2 gene variances that contribute to it, but hundreds. CRISPR is very good at making deliberate intentional changes in single genes, and therefore its very good in setting up a kind of future scenario where single genes can be intervened on in the germline or in the body. What we’re finding out more and more from human biology, and this is important, is that although there are certainly cases where single gene mutations are responsible for a disease, the actual people or most people have diseases that are manifestations of hundreds, if not thousands, of gene variants. That, and the environment. 5. There are potentially unseen advantages to seemingly negative genetic predispositions: you’ve used the example that creative people may be predisposed to being bipolar. If desirability is a moving target, and evolution changes according to culture and environment, what is the dream, in your opinion, for gene editing? This is hard to answer because I really think of gene editing in three buckets—and it’s very important to distinguish between the three, as they have different ethical and technical challenges. The first one, which is happening now, is genetically modified organisms—making different kinds of crops, and changing gene drives in pests, in fish, in animals. The dangers here are obviously ecological—the main concern is having humility about ecology, and how little we know about interrelatedness in ecology. Category 2 is using CRISPR/Cas9 to make genetic changes in human cells, but not in sperm, eggs, or embryo cells. This is called Somatic Gene Editing. We are doing this, my own laboratory does it. We have been shocked by how easy it is, and the efficiency, though we still have questions about whether there are off-target effects. And there are social and political challenges like what disease to apply it to; there are trials in the next 2-3 years that will tell us this. The third and final category is the most ethically complex, and the most technically complex—and it’s also the one that has everyone fired up. And that is making these changes in sperm cells and eggs cells, or cells that make sperm and eggs—so-called germline gene editing. I think we will begin to see some early data from germline editing in the next 5-10 years. It’s the tallest order in terms of what the challenges are and how much we would be able to see in the next ten-odd years. 

Sadly,
it's much easier
to create a desert
than a forest.
James Lovelock, scientist
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