Beyond the Limits of Nature: A Conversation with Caltech's Kaihang Wang

Published : Tuesday, September 17, 2019 | 12:12 PM

Kaihang Wang. Credit: Caltech

Bioengineer Kaihang Wang is pushing life’s limits. As a recent addition to Caltech’s faculty, the assistant professor studies how to create artificial life forms in his laboratory by designing and building genomes—the DNA blueprints for organisms—from scratch. We sat down with Wang to discuss synthetic biology and his goal of creating new forms of life.

What are the basic “rules of life” and how are you working on rewriting them?

The genome of any given life form on Earth contains all of the information for life and the rules for how to interpret that information. What if we could, from scratch, make brand new synthetic genomes? We could redefine the rules of life that have been fixed for [billions of] years. We could create new, artificial, forms of life.

We have been using the simple bacteria Escherichia coli or E. coli. We tweak their genomes and see what happens when we make certain changes, with the goal of eventually understanding how to construct a genome from scratch.

Why would you want to create novel life forms?

There are a few things we imagine we could do if we were able to go beyond the limits of nature. Take, for example, the proteins that carry out essentially all of life’s functions—they are all made up of 20 amino acid building blocks. So, all life forms on Earth have been restricted by only 20 amino acids, this limited chemical space, for billions of years. Any deviation from these preexisting rules would kill life forms as we know them, but by creating something totally new, we could rewrite the rules and change the limits. What would life look like if it could use 21 amino acids?

Will this redefine “life” as we know it?

It depends on the definition of life. Most biologists would say that life must self-replicate, following the Darwinian rules of evolution and selection. A synthetic organism that reproduces would then indeed be alive. If you define life as a thing created by a higher power, then that higher power would be us. Whether our creations are “alive” or not is not for me to say. This can get philosophical.

What got you interested in synthetic biology?

In the ’90s, there was this hype about Dolly the Sheep, the cloned sheep. And then the movie Jurassic Park. I thought, ‘This is brilliant, we can clone stuff! We can go find dinosaur fossils and clone them!’ Of course, I realized you can’t really do that because you don’t have live cells from dinosaurs. But I became really intrigued by the idea of modern biological science where we can create stuff and make stuff.

What brings you to Caltech?

In order to do the kind of research that I want to do, I need the top students and the top postdocs. Not only that, I need the top colleagues. This is a place where everyone is the top talent in their fields. Another equally important reason for coming here is the open mindset—what I’m doing and trying to do, understandably, can be sometimes misinterpreted. Caltech is one of the very few places that truly, wholeheartedly, embraces this kind of seemingly impossible venture. But it’s only seemingly impossible. It’s actually very achievable.






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