John Cumbers’ DIY approach to life extension: personal genomics and synthetic biology

John Cumbers made the Drosophila CHiP protocol video. He is a graduate student at the Tatar lab in Brown University, USA. Below are his answers to the blogterview questions and through answer 5 you can take a fresh look at the bottom-up approach of synthetic biology.
johncumbers1. What is the story of your life extension commitment and 2) is it a commitment for moderate or maximum life extension?

I began thinking about human lifespan when I became interested in astronomy. They are two related subjects and two subjects that I think we need to look at from different angles in order to move forward. Too often we fail to look up at the sky at night, and if in the city, the light pollution can blind us to the stars. Only when we get away from this light and can see the sky clearly, do we have a chance to see the universe spreading out before us and it is this that first sparked my imagination about ageing. If we can imagine a universe on an infinite timescale, then why not humanity too?

3. What is your favourite argument supporting human life extension?

I think that history is blinding us to the future. We are trapped in a culture that sees death as inevitable, but I see death as a cultural artifact and not something that is inevitable. Let us take a few steps back and look at what we know about humanity in the last 10,000 years, what are we? An evolved dominant species that has only just formed into a “civilised” society. However, we still regularly war with each other and the general perception of living longer is frowned upon, two things that demonstrate to me that our civilization still has far to go.

4. What kind of moderate life extension technologies have the chance to become successful, and when?

Now let’s just go back a few decades and look how far we have come in learning about DNA and the basis of life. Since the discovery of the structure of DNA in the 1950’s we have come a huge way in understanding how life evolved and we are now beginning to understand the mechanisms by which life degrades. In the short term, I think that the Personal Genome Project has a lot of potential and the race to bring the cost of sequencing your genome down to something affordable will soon be won.

5. What is the most probable technological draft of maximum life extension, which technology or discipline has the biggest chance to reach it earliest? When?

Aubrey de Grey has long been saying that ageing can be engineered away, Synthetic Biologists are going to be the ones capable of testing this hypothesis. Let’s take Ron Weiss’ work as an example, “PROGRAMMED DIFFERENTIATION OF MOUSE EMBRYONIC STEM CELLS USING ARTIFICIAL SIGNALING PATHWAYS” This work forms the proof of principle that stem cells can be differentiated into different types of cells by using standard interchangeable parts (BioBricks) and standardised cell-to-cell signaling mechanisms. With this in mind, Synthetic Biology is definitely “Building the Foundations for Engineering Biology” I don’t know about timescales, but I do believe that we will hit the escape velocity needed (that once modest breakthrough’s appear, public perception about ageing will change).

6. What can blogs, wikis and other websites do for LE?

Blogs and wiki’s are the new media of science publishing. Take OpenWetWare, the science wiki as an example. As new science communities form around the internet, we will see fewer paper journals and the need for faster turnaround of results is an exciting start.

7. What can/will You do for life extension?

As well as continue with research (I’m studying DNA binding proteins, transcriptional regulation and insulin signaling) I also want to change public opinion about ageing. Try asking a random selection of people if they would like to live to 120, you will find the answer is no. This I don’t understand.

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