January 23, 2015

Designing Life


Although primarily known for revolutionizing computer-aided design with the release of AutoCAD, Autodesk is set to radically alter the design process of a new realm of materials: living objects. The transition into the emerging industry of designing life is the goal of Project Cyborg, a cloud-based design platform focused on developing and integrating numerous computational tools capable of designing, testing, and editing living things.

In order to better understand why a historically material-minded company like Autodesk got interested in designing life, I spoke with Carlos Olguin, one of Project Cyborg’s founding members and the head of the Bio/Nano/Programmable Matter Group at Autodesk. Carlos studied Electronics and Communications in undergrad, got his master’s degree in Information Networking, and worked for many years in design before developing an interest in synthetic biology, so it begs to question what sparked his shift into such a tangential field. He explained that, “Biology is an expert in design, and any designer who’s aware of that wants to explore it.” From Da Vinci’s bat-inspired flying machine and Gaudí’s forest-inspired Sagrada Familia to more recent endeavors like butterfly-wing-inspired display technology, scientists and artists have been looking to biology for inspiration for centuries. Yet, until recently, software technology has been very limited in its capability of accurately modeling living systems, let alone designing novel systems and predicting their function in silico.

Enter Project Cyborg, an exciting new undertaking aimed at expanding on the limited tools available to synthetic biologists in their attempt to reliably design, engineer, and test living “programmable matter” all without having to physically make those living things first. Carlos is particularly excited about the field of synthetic biology because he believes that “biology not only gives us the opportunity, from a manufacturing standpoint, to reinvent the world around us, it also presents the opportunity to reinvent the world within us as well.” Engineered microorganisms can manufacture all sorts of useful chemicals from beer to insulin, but beyond producing products utilizing biological systems like CRISPR also promises the possibility of curing diseases like HIV/AIDS and possibly  in the future augmenting human capabilities through direct genome manipulation.

Carlos Olguin speaking at SynBioBeta San Francisco 2014

Carlos Olguin speaking at SynBioBeta San Francisco 2014

He believes that harnessing the power of biology brings new rules to the game of technology and the possibilities of the future. From collaborations on DNA origami, synthetic cells, and tissue engineering, Cyborg hopes to provide a one-size-fits-all platform for cross-discipline and scale-free computation of living systems or more generally “Programmable Matter”. Carlos understands what a massive undertaking Project Cyborg is, but Autodesk hopes to build momentum as the platform develops by focusing on practical short-term goals. One such idea is to compile a vast database of publicly available experimental data and train their systems by iterating through predictions and real world results. The sheer number of variables in almost all living systems makes it very difficult to fully characterize biological systems with current computational means. Before diving into attempts at creating algorithms and predictive models from scratch, Autodesk is determined to mine very large data spaces to build a computational framework based on high-quality experimental results and observations.

As well as focusing on their own in-house application development, Autodesk is actively encouraging scientists in the field to integrate their existing programs into Cyborg. Most notably, Autodesk has been extensively working with Berkeley professor J. Christopher Anderson and Boston University professor Douglas Densmore’s to integrate their synthetic biology application platform Clotho into Cyborg. It is clear that the successful development of Cyborg will necessitate a team effort across numerous specialties and universities, but Carlos and the team at Autodesk aren’t daunted by the long road ahead. They are sustained by the clear and growing power of synthetic biology and its seemingly endless possibilites. Carlos explained that “when they create design tools for nano-robots that kill cancer, it’s a very challenging and fulfilling design task, but the challenge is comparable to the payoff.”

Only time will tell if Autodesk can position itself to make the AutoCAD of living material, but with the current momentum behind Cyborg the future looks bright… and alive.