[ExI] Halcyon Molecular interview
kanzure at gmail.com
Thu Dec 9 22:43:52 UTC 2010
Halycon Molecular interview
Here is the William Andregg interview by Sander Olson. Mr. Andregg is the
CEO and founder of Halcyon Molecular <http://halcyonmolecular.com/updates/>.
Along with his brother, Michael, William invented the core polymer placement
technology which allows rapid and inexpensive sequencing of DNA. Mr. Andregg
is confident that by 2015 complete human genomes will be sequenced for only
$1,000. He believes that DNA sequencing will eventually become sufficiently
sophisticated, automated, and inexpensive that scientists will be able to
sequence every tree in a forest, and may lead to advanced nanotechnology.
In a recent episode of TechCrunch TV’s “Speaking Of..”, Halcyon Molecular
CEO William Andregg spoke about his dream to extend human lifespans long
enough to travel to other star systems. William explains how his early focus
on astronomy and physics eventually gave way to intense study of biology for
that reason. In the video, he says how he is fascinated by long-living
creatures like the Galápagos tortoise and bowhead whale, and expresses
optimism about how advanced biotechnology could determine their
longevity-relevant molecular differences and use that knowledge to develop
life-extension therapies for humans.
*Question*: How much does it currently cost to sequence ones genome?
*Answer*: Depends on what you mean by “sequence ones genome”. If you want a
truly complete sequence, you can’t get that now. You could spend millions of
dollars and you still wouldn’t have even a single truly complete human
genome. There are much cheaper options to get something far less accurate
and useful- getting down to about $10,000 currently. But we’re hoping that
in five years when people talk about “sequencing ones genome”, they really
mean it- really sequencing the whole thing, not just seeing part of it.
*Question*: How much of the entire human genome have we currently sequenced?
*Answer*: The most comprehensive reference assembly for the human genome
still contains hundreds of gaps as of 2010, with millions and millions of
*Question*: Current gene sequencing techniques employ short reads. What is
the limitation with this approach?
*Answer*: Think of jigsaw puzzles. If a jigsaw puzzle has just a few big
pieces like the ones they make for three year olds, it’s trivial to solve.
But if it has tens of thousands of pieces like some expert-level jigsaw
puzzles do, then it’s going to be a huge pain. That’s current sequencing
technology. Short reads are the tiny jigsaw puzzle pieces. We want to solve
the puzzle of the genome using the biggest pieces possible.
*Question*: So does that also help make the sequencing faster as well?
*Answer*: Yes, it makes putting the whole genome together less
computationally intensive and thereby faster. It also improves the overall
accuracy because with longer reads you can be more confident in the ordering
of repetitive regions.
*Question*: You claim that DNA sequencing has the potential to "turn
medicine into an information science". What exactly do you mean by that?
*Answer*: Taking the guesswork out of it, making it a precise, predictive
science and less an art. In ten years you’ll have orders of magnitude more
information about your own body and biology, and the sequencing revolution
will be a big part of that. Biomedical researchers will also have orders of
magnitude more information in general about how life works, and how health
turns to illness.
*Question*: How do your views on longevity and life extension compare with
those of Aubrey de Grey and Ray Kurzweil?
*Answer*: Parts of SENS urgently should be funded and tested. That being
said, I work on sequencing and not on SENS, because our approach to curing
aging is first to turn biology into an information science- actually getting
to untangling the morass of metabolism that SENS does an end run around. I
believe we can get to a complete mechanistic understanding of human biology
in only a few decades, which is a timeline more like Kurzweil’s. On the
other hand, if SENS were being vigorously pursued today, it might save
millions of lives before the total understanding approach avails us. It is
good to have multiple bets.
As for Kurzweil, maybe this isn’t fair, and I’d like to hear his thoughts on
it, but I’m afraid his books demotivate people who would otherwise
contribute to the cause, maybe by giving the impression to some that the
Singularity is not only coming, but actually inevitable. Eat right,
exercise, take these pills, and don’t worry- those smart hardworking
scientists over there will solve everything for you. In contrast, a great
thing about Aubrey as a leader is that he harangues people to actually get
off their asses and make a contribution.
We might not survive the next twenty years. We may never cure aging. There
is nothing inevitable about our success. Everyone who is talented enough to
make a contribution should be trying to help, on all fronts, by any ethical
means, like it’s life and death- because it is.
And the very most talented ones should send their resumes immediately to
*Question*: How will high-throughput DNA sequencing directly benefit
*Answer*: We’ll sequence the genomes of every centenarian and every
supercentenarian, and find out which genes directly relate to longevity and
to early morbidity and mortality. We’ll sequence long-lived organisms, like
the Galapagos tortoise, the bowhead whale, the bristlecone pine. We’ll
sequence all species of Rockfish, a whole genus where there’s almost an
order of magnitude difference in maximum lifespans between evolutionary
close cousins. And all of that just scrapes the iceberg- that’s not even the
imaginative or ambitious answer.
The grand design is to read, write, program DNA. The better and faster and
cheaper you do that, the sooner we’ll hack biology and be free from disease.
Billions of individual human genomes, and billions of genomes of
domesticated animals, is only the beginning. The amount of genomic
information on this planet that might help us hack biology is orders of
magnitude vaster than that. You have quadrillions of unique genomes in your
body, counting the metagenome of all your individual genomically different
cells and the metagenome of all the stuff living in and on you. Someone will
probably want to sequence every tree in a forest, or every leaf on a tree,
or every bacterium in a speck of seawater. Someone will definitely sequence
every ear of corn in a cornfield. We’ll probably sequence all the
charismatic megafauna we can find on the planet, and all the trillions of
less glamorous animals as well. But even that is only the beginning. People
will do forward genetics studies where they sequence trillions of individual
cells or model organisms. And there may be just as much or more sequencing
of artificial genomes or genetic constructs in the course of solving
synthetic biology- the writing and programming part of the grand design.
Tangentially, synthetic biology might be the least insanely difficult way to
robust nanotechnology, making anything you want from spoons to space
elevators, just like your cells build things with atomic precision all the
time, using a billion year old programming language that we aim to
completely understand. And so sequencing might turn out to be upstream of a
lot more than merely freeing humanity from all disease.
*Question*: Is Halcyon Molecular expanding? Are there any plans for an IPO?
*Answer*: Expanding carefully, with an extremely high bar. We only want the
best of the best, of the best of the best of the best- iterating that to
somewhere way above the 99th percentile. And the team we’ve built so far is
like that, just unbelievably good. I think the level of talent in the
Halcyon project might be every bit as elite as it was in the teams that
worked on the Manhattan or Apollo projects. And given what we’re trying to
do, that’s exactly how it should be.
As for the IPO question, if doing an IPO is consistent with the mission,
we’ll do it. Halcyon is a mission with a company, not the other way around.
Right now only people who care first and foremost about the mission have
significant stock in the company. We’d have to think long and hard about
letting that change.
*Question*: Who is funding Halcyon?
*Answer*: Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, Founders Fund, and several angels. We’ve
also won about three million dollars in grants from NIH and other government
*Question*: How long will it take before sequencing the human genome falls
*Answer*: Well, right now it has infinity to fall from, because you can’t
buy a complete human genome yet at any price. But as soon as that’s
available- I think 2012 is a good guess- then we’ll see a thousand dollar
complete genome in 2013.
*Question*: How much progress in this field can be expected by 2020?
*Answer*: Probably depends on how many of your most brilliant readers send
me their CV’s today. Individual choices are what really matter to the arc of
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