LOS ANGELES - Imagine storing digital data in DNA, wearing a device that makes you smarter or creating new materials by manipulating the genes of microbes.
These ideas may sound like science fiction, but scientists are working on technologies that combine what they know about biology and altering it with the help of artificial intelligence. Their work was presented at the 2018 Milken Institute Global Conference during a panel called “Things That Will Blow Your Mind.”
“The machine finds stuff in biology that a human would never find,” Joshua Hoffman, co-founder and chief executive officer of Zymergen, said.
The company is conducting experiments that would never have been possible just a few years ago, Hoffman said.
Manipulating microbial genes
Zymergen uses computers to design experiments that manipulate the genes of microbes so the chemicals they produce can make stronger or better materials.
“We use automation and machine learning to engineer microbes, little single-cell creatures to turn them into the chemical factories of the future,” Hoffman said. “What we’re doing is we’re searching the genome for the things that might work. What machine learning does is it looks for patterns that a human wouldn’t find in ways that are more likely than not to have the genetic changes in the genome that are going to have the impact, the trait that we want.”
He said what takes humans years to discover, computers can do in just months. The bulk of Zymergen’s work is with the chemicals and materials industry as well as with agricultural companies.
“We can work to increase the effectiveness of crop protection agents so herbicides, fungicides, those sorts of things. We can reduce the toxicity of agents that seem to work but actually cause other kinds of problems,” Hoffman added.
Enhancing the human brain
Instead of enhancing microbes, theoretical neuroscientist Vivienne Ming spoke extensively about improving the human brain.
“What I’m interested in is cognitive prosthetics. Can I literally jam something in your brain and make you smarter?” asked Ming, who founded the think tank Socos Labs.
“How much you can think about, pay attention to, mentally operate on at any given moment - we’ve actually found that we can increase that by about 15 percent,” she said.
Laboratories around the world are already conducting research on different types of external noninvasive brain stimulation for autism, to treat depression and to improve the brain’s cognitive abilities.
Ming said one application for improving cognition is to level the playing field for underprivileged children.
“For that hour that they may be spending in a remedial class, we might actually be able to use that technology that brings them right back up with the rest of the kids,” she added.
In a world with artificial intelligence, enhancing cognition is one way for humans to compete with machines, Ming said.
“In a world of increasing technology, this is one possibly to keep us ever relevant is to find the best of who we are and combine it with the best of what we can build in a very deep and fundamental way," she said.
DNA data storage
Inspired by biology, Hyunjun Park and his company, Catalog, make synthetic DNA used to store digital data.
“We as a society are generating so much data with 5G wireless networks, Internet of Things, high-definition video and just social media so by the year 2025, we’re going to generate a lot more data and a lot more useful data than we’ll have the capacity to store, and so we are in need of a new medium that can be much more efficient than the current solutions,” Park said.
Storage data in the cloud takes up “acres of land, cities worth of power and it costs billions of dollars to build and maintain,” he explained.
In contrast to current forms of data storage, Park said DNA can store much more information that can last thousands of years, and his company has figured out how to do it cheaper than other labs.
“It’s a liquid solution that you move around to assemble different pieces of DNA and then for storage, we will dry that down so that it’s a powder in any tube that you are storing it in,” Park said.
He said an industrial scale proof of concept for DNA storage can be ready as early as 2019.
As scientists from various subfields of biology take advantage of artificial intelligence, investors are paying attention.
“These traditional investors in the Silicon Valley area that’s been invested in tech companies, they are now looking at biotech and seeing this as really the future of innovation,” Park said.