Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Interview with a Synthetic Biologist: Michael Flanagan of Genspace


Michael Flanagan is an electrical engineer, synthetic biologist, and instructor for the Biohacker Boot Camp course offered through Genspace. He is a current member of the lab at Genspace, where he works on his own independent synbio projects. 

After taking the biohacker course with Michael and becoming intrigued by the concept of "biohacking," I asked Michael for an interview to learn more about it.

I wanted to ask you what “biohacking” means to you.

To me personally, “biohacking” is a buzz expression that is sometimes used to generate a hype or excitement. 

In many contexts, hacking implies some level of crudeness and brute force: such as might be associated with the use of an axe.  In contrast, I find that synthetic and molecular biology will often require the level of finesse and skill more closely associated with a scalpel than an axe.

I’d be lying to you if I said that I was a big fan of the term “biohacking,” and the irony is not lost on me that the class I teach technically has the word “biohacking” in it!  I think that from a marketing perspective, there is a certain wisdom in selecting terms that are getting people to look twice, or to think about it, or to get excited about it—I get that. But from a personal perspective, it’s not a term that deeply resonates with what I do .

What is your background and how did you get involved in (as I call it) DIY biology?

I normally call what I do “synbio,” or synthetic biology.

I am a trained electrical engineer. I have a PhD in electrical engineering from Caltech, and also have a master’s degree and a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering.  I have worked in both large industrial research facilities like NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Bell Labs as well as in smaller startups.

But then, after leaving my last startup, Arieso, I realized that if I didn’t make a significant change with my life, and begin to focus on synthetic biology—which I had been admiring from a distance for about a decade—I might never do it!  Never would I find a better time in my life to take the plunge and to retool myself to fully engage in synthetic biology.  I wanted to see first-hand what it was about, where the state of the art was, and what I might be able to contribute to it.

What was the first step you took to get involved in synthetic biology? 

It started with reading popular books, technical papers, and textbooks on molecular biology and biochemistry.  I then started taking classes at Genspace, the community biology laboratory of New York City, including the one that I teach now.  After running out of classes to take at Genspace, I became a member in late 2014 to pursue my investigations and to learn more about synthetic biology in a hands-on fashion.

In a way, these early efforts in synthetic biology reminded me of when I was a young teenager learning to program computers.  I learned early on that there is a unique thrill associated with getting an automaton (such as a digital computer) to do what you wanted it to do, especially after countless – sometimes frustrating! -  hours of effort.  In some sense, I am still programming, but I often only use four letters on my keyboard (ATCG)!  More importantly, I am still trying to get automatons to carry out desired tasks – except they are now carbon-based bacteria, instead of silicon-based computers.

If you are okay with sharing, what kind of projects do you work on in synbio?

I primarily work on biomaterials projects. I am particularly interested in cellulose production and trying to teach bacteria to act like trees by reprogramming their DNA.

Regardless of the end-product, I am intrigued by how you can edit DNA sequences from different organisms to work in concert to accomplish tasks in new ways that have never occurred before in nature.

So you already made clear that you don’t really like the term “biohacking/biohacker”, would you call yourself a DIY biologist?

I’m a synthetic biologist. Although to be honest with you, when I wake up in the morning I still think of myself as an engineer. And what is the difference between a scientist and an engineer? A scientist will look at a phenomenon and say, “Well I wonder how that works. I wonder what the underlying mechanism is and how that fits in with existing models of the way the world works.”  An engineer will look at the same phenomenon and say, “I wonder how I could use that. I wonder if I could predictably and reliably put something together that makes use of that phenomenon.”  Don’t get me wrong: I’m a big fan of understanding underlying mechanisms (I wouldn’t have spent four years in graduate school at Caltech otherwise!)  But I’m a bigger fan of doing something useful.

Working in community labs; do you think that you or others like you have any advantages developing biotech or synbio over scientists working in more traditional settings?

I guess one advantage is that you’re doing it for yourself. You’re working hard each day because you want to be there and you’re trying to set a course and direction yourself. There can be something very empowering, and certainly very personally satisfying, in working for those reasons.  I have found traditional research and development settings to often be more risk-averse.    In this environment, improvements and new efforts are often incremental rather than revolutionary.  But it will take many different types of environments (traditional and non-traditional) for synbio to achieve its full potential.

If we saw more people join community labs, or if we saw more hobbyists in synbio, what does the future look like to you?

I think the future would be very bright! If you have more people knowing about how to work in community labs and taking some part in it, it enables them to be more knowledgeable citizens, especially about topics that will have an increasing impact in their world.  They will be able to look beyond the polarizing hype that cripples so much public discourse today.

From what I read online and from people I talk to in my life, I get this feeling that there’s a lot of dystopian fear around this [synthetic biology]. “What if this person that makes a lab in their basement creates this bacteria that destroys mankind?” What would you say to thoughts and feelings like that?

What I would say is that we need to be vigilant regarding all technological threats.  But this vigilance must be balanced and rational so that we do not delay the considerable benefits that these technologies will allow.   We can best see this with an example: over 200 years ago Benjamin Franklin was literally taking the first steps in a new world of electrical engineering.  In particular, he was conducting experiments with a kite and a key in a lightning storm. You can imagine people coming up to him and saying, “Electricity comes from the heavens: doesn’t that make it divine? Should base mortals really be playing around with electricity? What if someday they put electricity into every home? Electricity could cause countless houses to burn down!  Couldn’t electricity be used to make electronic devices that effectively turn our families, friends and ourselves into zombies because we stare into them all the time?  Couldn’t electricity enable future weapons systems that could destroy all of humanity?”

And then Ben Franklin would have looked at them and said something along the lines of, “I’m a guy with a kite in a rainstorm. The manifestation of your concerns and fears is very far off from where we are technologically right now.  And the ultimate measure of this (or any technology) requires a consideration of the pros as well as the cons.” 

We are still in the early days of synbio, but it is not difficult to see how the ultimate benefits could outweigh the risks.  The primary task of synthetic biologists is to pave a path towards these benefits so that our efforts will be on the right side of history.

 What are some of the biggest goods you think DNA reprogramming could potentially produce?

The potential good staggers the imagination!  In brief: longer and healthier life, (including the eradication of cancer and other genetic diseases), improved biodiversity, novel biomaterials, and reduced pollution.

Very special thanks to Michael Flanagan for taking the time to talk for an interview, and for all the additional work in helping put the transcript together.

(1) Background photo from Scientific Times Journal of Microbiology. Available at: http://scientifictimes.org/journals/Microbiology/index.html.

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