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Juan Enriquez: We can reprogram life. How to do it wisely

November 6, 2015

For four billion years, what lived and died on Earth depended on two principles: natural selection and random mutation. Then humans came along and changed everything — hybridizing plants, breeding animals, altering the environment and even purposefully evolving ourselves. Juan Enriquez provides five guidelines for a future where this ability to program life rapidly accelerates. "This is the single most exciting adventure human beings have been on," Enriquez says. "This is the single greatest superpower humans have ever had."

Juan Enriquez - Futurist
Juan Enriquez thinks and writes about the profound changes that genomics and other life sciences will bring in business, technology, politics and society. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
So, there's an actor
called Dustin Hoffman.
00:12
And years ago, he made this movie
which some of you may have heard of,
00:16
called "The Graduate."
00:19
And there's two key scenes in that movie.
00:21
The first one is the seduction scene.
00:24
I'm not going to talk about that tonight.
00:26
(Laughter)
00:28
The second scene is where he's taken out
by the old guy to the pool,
00:30
and as a young college graduate,
the old guy basically says one word,
00:34
just one word.
00:39
And of course, all of you know
what that word is.
00:41
It's "plastics."
00:43
(Laughter)
00:45
And the only problem with that is,
it was completely the wrong advice.
00:47
(Laughter)
00:50
Let me tell you why it was so wrong.
00:53
The word should have been "silicon."
00:55
And the reason it should have been silicon
00:57
is because the basic patents
for semiconductors had already been made,
01:00
had already been filed,
01:05
and they were already building them.
01:06
So Silicon Valley was just
being built in 1967,
01:08
when this movie was released.
01:11
And the year after the movie was released,
01:13
Intel was founded.
01:15
So had the graduate heard
the right one word,
01:17
maybe he would have ended up
onstage -- oh, I don't know --
01:19
maybe with these two.
01:23
(Laughter)
01:24
So as you're thinking of that,
01:31
let's see what bit of advice
we might want to give
01:34
so that your next graduate doesn't become
a Tupperware salesman.
01:37
(Laughter)
01:41
So in 2015, what word of advice
would you give people,
01:43
when you took a college
graduate out by the pool
01:47
and you said one word, just one word?
01:49
I think the answer would be "lifecode."
01:52
So what is "lifecode?"
01:55
Lifecode is the various ways
we have of programming life.
01:56
So instead of programming computers,
01:59
we're using things to program viruses
02:00
or retroviruses or proteins
02:03
or DNA or RNA
02:05
or plants or animals,
or a whole series of creatures.
02:08
And as you're thinking
about this incredible ability
02:11
to make life do what you want it to do,
02:14
what it's programmed to do,
02:16
what you end up doing
02:18
is taking what we've been doing
for thousands of years,
02:20
which is breeding, changing,
02:23
mixing, matching
02:26
all kinds of life-forms,
02:28
and we accelerate it.
02:30
And this is not something new.
02:32
This humble mustard weed has been modified
02:33
so that if you change it in one way,
you get broccoli.
02:36
And if you change it
in a second way, you get kale.
02:40
And if you change it in a third way,
02:43
you get cauliflower.
02:45
So when you go to these
all-natural, organic markets,
02:47
you're really going to a place
02:50
where people have been changing
the lifecode of plants for a long time.
02:52
The difference today,
02:57
to pick a completely
politically neutral term --
02:58
[Intelligent design]
03:00
(Laughter)
03:02
We're beginning to practice
intelligent design.
03:03
That means that instead
of doing this at random
03:06
and seeing what happens over generations,
03:08
we're inserting specific genes,
we're inserting specific proteins,
03:10
and we're changing lifecode
for very deliberate purposes.
03:14
And that allows us to accelerate
how this stuff happens.
03:18
Let me just give you one example.
03:22
Some of you occasionally
might think about sex.
03:26
And we kind of take it for granted
how we've changed sex.
03:31
So we think it's perfectly normal
and natural to change it.
03:34
What's happened with sex over time is --
03:37
normally, sex equals baby, eventually.
03:40
But in today's world,
03:43
sex plus pill equals no baby.
03:45
(Laughter)
03:48
And again, we think
that's perfectly normal and natural,
03:49
but that has not been the case
for most of human history.
03:52
And it's not the case for animals.
03:55
What it is does is it gives us control,
03:57
so sex becomes separate from conception.
03:59
And as you're thinking
of the consequences of that,
04:02
then we've been playing with stuff
04:05
that's a little bit more
advanced, like art.
04:06
Not in the sense
of painting and sculpture,
04:09
but in the sense of assisted
reproductive technologies.
04:11
So what are assisted
reproductive technologies?
04:17
Assisted reproductive technologies
are things like in vitro fertilization.
04:19
And when you do in vitro fertilization,
there's very good reasons to do it.
04:24
Sometimes you just
can't conceive otherwise.
04:27
But when you do that,
04:31
what you’re doing is separating
sex, conception, baby.
04:32
So you haven't just taken control
of when you have a baby,
04:37
you've separated when the baby
and where the baby is fertilized.
04:40
So you've separated the baby
04:44
from the body from the act.
04:46
And as you're thinking
of other things we've been doing,
04:49
think about twins.
04:52
So you can freeze sperm,
you can freeze eggs,
04:54
you can freeze fertilized eggs.
04:56
And what does that mean?
04:59
Well, that's a good thing
if you're a cancer patient.
05:01
You're about to go under chemotherapy
or under radiation,
05:03
so you save these things.
05:06
You don't irradiate them.
05:08
But if you can save them
and you can freeze them,
05:09
and you can have a surrogate mother,
05:12
it means that you've
decoupled sex from time.
05:14
It means you can have twins
born -- oh, in 50 years?
05:17
(Laughter)
05:23
In a hundred years?
05:26
Two hundred years?
05:29
And these are three
really profound changes
05:31
that are not, like, future stuff.
05:34
This is stuff we take for granted today.
05:35
So this lifecode stuff
turns out to be a superpower.
05:38
It turns out to be this incredibly
powerful way of changing viruses,
05:42
of changing plants, of changing animals,
05:46
perhaps even of evolving ourselves.
05:49
It's something that Steve Gullans and I
have been thinking about for a while.
05:51
Let's have some risks.
05:56
Like every powerful technology,
like electricity, like an automobile,
05:58
like computers, this stuff
potentially can be misused.
06:02
And that scares a lot of people.
06:06
And as you apply these technologies,
06:08
you can even turn human
beings into chimeras.
06:10
Remember the Greek myth
where you mix animals?
06:13
Well, some of these treatments
06:16
actually end up changing your blood type.
06:18
Or they'll put male cells
in a female body or vice versa,
06:21
which sounds absolutely horrible
06:26
until you realize, the reason
you're doing that
06:27
is you're substituting bone marrow
during cancer treatments.
06:30
So by taking somebody else's bone marrow,
06:33
you may be changing
some fundamental aspects of yourself,
06:35
but you're also saving your life.
06:38
And as you're thinking about this stuff,
06:40
here's something
that happened 20 years ago.
06:42
This is Emma Ott.
06:45
She's a recent college admittee.
06:46
She's studying accounting.
06:49
She played two varsity sports.
She graduated as a valedictorian.
06:51
And that's not particularly extraordinary,
06:55
except that she's the first human being
born to three parents.
06:57
Why?
07:02
Because she had a deadly
mitochondrial disease
07:03
that she might have inherited.
07:05
So when you swap out a third person's DNA
07:06
and you put it in there,
07:09
you save the lives of people.
07:11
But you also are doing
germline engineering,
07:13
which means her kids,
if she has kids, will be saved
07:16
and won't go through this.
07:20
And [their] kids will be saved,
07:21
and their grandchildren will be saved,
07:23
and this passes on.
07:25
That makes people nervous.
07:26
So 20 years ago,
the various authorities said,
07:28
why don't we study this for a while?
07:30
There are risks to doing stuff,
and there are risks to not doing stuff,
07:33
because there were a couple dozen people
saved by this technology,
07:37
and then we've been thinking about it
for the next 20 years.
07:40
So as we think about it,
07:44
as we take the time to say, "Hey,
maybe we should have longer studies,
07:46
maybe we should do this,
maybe we should do that,"
07:49
there are consequences to acting,
and there are consequences to not acting.
07:52
Like curing deadly diseases --
07:57
which, by the way,
is completely unnatural.
07:59
It is normal and natural
for humans to be felled
08:02
by massive epidemics of polio,
of smallpox, of tuberculosis.
08:05
When we put vaccines into people,
we are putting unnatural things
08:10
into their body
08:13
because we think the benefit
outweighs the risk.
08:15
Because we've built unnatural plants,
unnatural animals,
08:19
we can feed about seven billion people.
08:23
We can do things
like create new life-forms.
08:26
And as you create new life-forms,
again, that sounds terribly scary
08:30
and terribly bothersome,
08:33
until you realize that those life-forms
live on your dining room table.
08:35
Those flowers you've got
on your dining room table --
08:39
there's not a lot
that's natural about them,
08:41
because people have been breeding
the flowers to make this color,
08:44
to be this size, to last for a week.
08:47
You don't usually give
your loved one wildflowers
08:48
because they don't last
a whole lot of time.
08:51
What all this does
08:56
is it flips Darwin completely on his head.
08:58
See, for four billion years,
09:00
what lived and died on this planet
depended on two principles:
09:02
on natural selection and random mutation.
09:06
And so what lived and died,
what was structured,
09:09
has now been flipped on its head.
09:12
And what we've done
09:16
is created this completely
parallel evolutionary system
09:17
where we are practicing unnatural
selection and non-random mutation.
09:19
So let me explain these things.
09:23
This is natural selection.
09:25
This is unnatural selection.
09:26
(Laughter)
09:28
So what happens with this stuff is,
09:31
we started breeding wolves
thousands of years ago
09:34
in central Asia to turn them into dogs.
09:37
And then we started
turning them into big dogs
09:39
and into little dogs.
09:41
But if you take one of the chihuahuas
09:43
you see in the Hermès bags on Fifth Avenue
09:45
and you let it loose on the African plain,
09:48
you can watch natural selection happen.
09:50
(Laughter)
09:52
Few things on Earth
are less natural than a cornfield.
09:58
You will never, under any scenario,
walk through a virgin forest
10:02
and see the same plant
growing in orderly rows
10:05
at the same time,
10:08
nothing else living there.
10:09
When you do a cornfield,
10:12
you're selecting what lives and what dies.
10:13
And you're doing that
through unnatural selection.
10:15
It's the same with a wheat field,
it's the same with a rice field.
10:18
It's the same with a city,
it's the same with a suburb.
10:21
In fact, half the surface of Earth
10:24
has been unnaturally engineered
10:25
so that what lives and what dies
there is what we want,
10:27
which is the reason why
you don't have grizzly bears
10:30
walking through downtown Manhattan.
10:33
How about this random mutation stuff?
10:36
Well, this is random mutation.
10:38
This is Antonio Alfonseca.
10:40
He's otherwise known
as the Octopus, his nickname.
10:42
He was the Relief Pitcher
of the Year in 2000.
10:44
And he had a random mutation
that gave him six fingers
10:47
on each hand,
10:50
which turns out to be really useful
if you're a pitcher.
10:52
(Laughter)
10:55
How about non-random mutation?
10:57
A non-random mutation is beer.
11:00
It's wine. It's yogurt.
11:03
How many times have you walked
through the forest
11:05
and found all-natural cheese?
11:08
Or all-natural yogurt?
11:10
So we've been engineering this stuff.
11:12
Now, the interesting thing is,
11:14
we get to know the stuff better.
11:16
We found one of the single most powerful
gene-editing instruments,
11:18
CRISPR, inside yogurt.
11:21
And as we start engineering cells,
11:24
we're producing eight out of the top 10
pharmaceutical products,
11:26
including the stuff that you use
to treat arthritis,
11:32
which is the number one
best-selling drug, Humira.
11:34
So this lifecode stuff.
11:37
It really is a superpower.
11:40
It really is a way of programming stuff,
11:41
and there's nothing
that's going to change us
11:43
more than this lifecode.
11:46
So as you're thinking of lifecode,
11:49
let's think of five principles
11:51
as to how we start guiding,
11:54
and I'd love you to give me more.
11:55
So, principle number one:
11:58
we have to take responsibility
for this stuff.
12:00
The reason we have to take responsibility
12:02
is because we're in charge.
12:05
These aren't random mutations.
12:06
This is what we are doing,
what we are choosing.
12:08
It's not, "Stuff happened."
12:11
It didn't happen at random.
12:12
It didn't come down
by a verdict of somebody else.
12:14
We engineer this stuff,
12:16
and it's the Pottery Barn rule:
you break it, you own it.
12:18
Principle number two:
12:22
we have to recognize and celebrate
diversity in this stuff.
12:24
There have been at least
33 versions of hominids
12:27
that have walked around this Earth.
12:30
Most all of them went extinct except us.
12:32
But the normal and natural
state of this Earth
12:35
is we have various versions of humans
walking around at the same time,
12:37
which is why most of us
have some Neanderthal in us.
12:41
Some of us have some Denisova in us.
12:44
And some in Washington
have a lot more of it.
12:46
(Laughter)
12:49
Principle number three:
12:51
we have to respect other people's choices.
12:53
Some people will choose to never alter.
12:56
Some people will choose to alter all.
12:58
Some people will choose
to alter plants but not animals.
13:00
Some people will choose
to alter themselves.
13:03
Some people will choose
to evolve themselves.
13:05
Diversity is not a bad thing,
13:07
because even though we think
of humans as very diverse,
13:09
we came so close to extinction
13:11
that all of us descend
from a single African mother
13:14
and the consequence of that
13:16
is there's more genetic diversity
in 55 African chimpanzees
13:18
than there are in seven billion humans.
13:22
Principle number four:
13:26
we should take about
a quarter of the Earth
13:28
and only let Darwin run the show there.
13:31
It doesn't have to be contiguous,
13:34
doesn't have to all be tied together.
13:36
It should be part
in the oceans, part on land.
13:38
But we should not run every
evolutionary decision on this planet.
13:40
We want to have
our evolutionary system running.
13:44
We want to have Darwin's
evolutionary system running.
13:46
And it's just really important to have
these two things running in parallel
13:49
and not overwhelm evolution.
13:53
(Applause)
13:54
Last thing I'll say.
14:02
This is the single most exciting
adventure human beings have been on.
14:04
This is the single greatest superpower
humans have ever had.
14:07
It would be a crime for you
not to participate in this stuff
14:10
because you're scared of it,
14:13
because you're hiding from it.
14:15
You can participate in the ethics.
You can participate in the politics.
14:16
You can participate in the business.
14:20
You can participate in just thinking
about where medicine is going,
14:22
where industry is going,
14:25
where we're going to take the world.
14:26
It would be a crime for all of us
14:28
not to be aware when somebody
shows up at a swimming pool
14:30
and says one word, just one word,
14:34
if you don't listen
if that word is "lifecode."
14:37
Thank you very much.
14:39
(Applause)
14:41

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Juan Enriquez - Futurist
Juan Enriquez thinks and writes about the profound changes that genomics and other life sciences will bring in business, technology, politics and society.

Why you should listen

A broad thinker who studies the intersections of these fields, Enriquez has a talent for bridging disciplines to build a coherent look ahead. He is the managing director of Excel Venture Management, a life sciences VC firm. He recently published (with Steve Gullans) Evolving Ourselves: How Unnatural Selection and Nonrandom Mutation Are Shaping Life on Earth. The book describes a world where humans increasingly shape their environment, themselves and other species.

Enriquez is a member of the board of Synthetic Genomics, which recently introduced the smallest synthetic living cell. Called “JCVI-syn 3.0,” it has 473 genes (about half the previous smallest cell). The organism would die if one of the genes is removed. In other words, this is the minimum genetic instruction set for a living organism.

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