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Meet Scientist Andrew Hessel, a Surfer Riding the Waves of Innovation in Synthetic Biology

headshot of Andrew Hessel
Andrew Hessel.

Some might call AAAS Member Andrew Hessel a coder, others a microbiologist — but what’s in a name?

When Hessel thinks about how he fits into his world of synthetic biology, he says he’s an explorer surfing the swells of a vast ocean of information, riding the breaking waves of opportunity to solve a puzzle that has fascinated him for decades: life. As founder of the Pink Army Cooperative, and Humane Genomics, Inc., he aims to explore rewiring or reprogramming organisms to do jobs they can’t do in their natural state.

Today, that can mean doing something as simple as programming a bacterium to glow. In the future, it could mean building a new organism that could, for example, consume toxic chemicals that don’t decompose naturally in water or soil.

“I'm not a medical doctor, I’m the guy looking at the simplest life forms and trying to figure out how they operate,” he says. “And every now and then, I get to ride a wave with a particular group or organization in the field.” 

But at its core, synthetic biology marries Hessel’s love of the microscopic and cellular with a passion for programming he developed years ago as a teenager living on the south shore of Montreal, Canada.

It was there that he acquired his first personal computer, a tool that taught him how to think logically, handle errors and make processes easier by automating them. However, the more he tinkered with his learning machine, the more he realized that computing didn’t give him that same rush of excitement he felt when he was learning about molecular biology.

“I realized I didn’t really care about computers,” he says. “The thing I cared about most was just life, because life is magical.”

Hessel went on to earn both his undergraduate degree in Cellular, Molecular, and Microbial Biology and his Master of Science in Bacterial Genomics at the University of Calgary. Leaving academia to work in the private sector, he took a job as Research Operations Manager for Amgen, a biotech company that at the time wrote biological code to make growth hormones.

Eventually, he swapped Canada’s colder northern temperatures for the U.S. west coast to work as a distinguished researcher with Autodesk in the San Francisco Bay area.

In the nearly 20 years since he left the biopharmaceutical industry, Hessel has built viruses from scratch, co-founded scientific working groups focused on synthetic biology and served as a Lemelson-AAAS Invention Ambassador — all with the goal of helping people better understand and use living systems in ways that can meet the needs of humanity.

Over the last 12 years, Hessel has held faculty positions with global learning and innovation community Singularity University, previously serving as the former Co-Chair of Biotechnology and Bioinformatics.

Today, what gets him most excited is the work being done by an initiative he co-founded called the Genome Project-Write — GP-write for short. It’s an open, international research project that aims to make the engineering and testing of large genomes more cost-effective, bringing together a team of multi-disciplinary experts.

Their overarching goal? To better understand the blueprint for life, one that could lead to discoveries like engineering cancer resistance, helping humans develop immunity against dangerous viruses, and even growing organ transplants for sick patients.

It’s the potential for scientific advances that Hessel says is why he looks at synthetic biology as the next big field to serve humanity — a topic he explores in a new book he co-wrote with author Amy Webb called “The Genesis Machine: Our Quest to Rewrite Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology.”

“Programming biology is just going to take us to the next level of manufacturing, recycling and producing materials that nature gives us the hardware to do essentially, but was never selected to do,” he says.

Synthetic biology isn’t without its critics, and no one knows that better than Hessel. Some would say that to dare to synthesize a virus or even consider rewiring the DNA of a bacterium is to play the role of a god.

His answer? Playing deity is something we do all the time, and not just in biology.

“Anytime we take control of any system, we're playing the gods,” he says. “I wear glasses and without these, I'd be useless, so our technology gives us godlike powers, you know, to shape our lives and our world.” It is his firm belief that sustainable synthetic biology applications will create a better world for future generations.

It was only 20 years ago that scientists completed the first human genome at a cost of billions. Today, you can sequence your own genome for less than $1,000 at higher resolution than what the scientists of that time could produce. Writing genomes could drop in price just as quickly over the next couple of decades.

As costs come down, Hessel says that the future of synthetic biology is looking bright — glowing, even, like a programmed bacterium.

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