In 2012, entrepreneur Sean Barrett founded Dock to Dish in Montauk, New York. It connected local fishermen and women with local chefs, enabling the chefs to serve hyper-fresh seafood – with the caveat that they didn't know what would be on their menus until it arrived in their kitchens the night before.
"Since we're not a seafood-centric culture, people don't know what's what, where fish are from, and when they're in season, making them easy to dupe."
In June of 2017, The United Nations Foundation designated Dock to Dish as one of the top breakthrough innovations that can scale to solve the ocean's grand challenges. His company has since expanded across the Americas and has just opened up shop in Fiji. Leapsmag recently chatted with Barrett about his inspirations and ideas for how to overcome the hurdles of farming wild seafood. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What inspired you to start Dock to Dish?
The short story is "A Tale of Two Hills."
The first is Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett. I grew up in the commercial fishing port of Chinicock in the 1980's and 90's, working on my family's dock from an early age and in the restaurant industry in my teens. By my thirties, I had accrued my 10,000 hours of experience in both dock and dish. I watched the food system shift from local to global, especially in seafood. By the early 2000's, over 90 percent of seafood in the U.S. was imported. It was bad.
Quail Hill was the first CSA [Community Supported Agriculture, in which customers pay up front for a share in whatever crops grow (or don't) on the farm that season] in the U.S., founded in 1990. So people in the area were accustomed to getting their produce that way. Scott Chaskey, the poet farmer at Quail Hill, really helped crystallize the philosophy for me and inspired me to apply it to seafood. Fishermen had always been bringing a share of their day's catch to their neighbors; now we were just doing it in a more formalized way.
The second is Blue Hill at Stone Barns. [Executive chef and co-owner] Dan Barber literally trademarked the phrase "Know Thy Farmer"; we just expanded it to Know Thy Fisherman and it took off like a rocket ship. His connections in the restaurant world were also indispensable.
17th generation Montauk fisherman Captain Bruce Beckwith (above left) with crew Charlie Etzel (Center) and Jeremy Gould (right).
Do you have any issues that are unique to seafood that a CSA or meat co-op wouldn't face?
This food is WILD. People are totally disconnected from what that word means, and it makes seafood different from everything else. Everything changes when viewed through the prism of that word.
This is the last wild food we eat. It is unpredictable, and subject to variables ranging from currents and tides to which way the wind is blowing. But it is what makes our model so much more impactful and beneficial than the industrialized, demand-driven marketplace that surrounds us. The ocean and its ecosystem are the boss, not chefs and consumers.
There has a been a lot of press about seafood being mislabeled. How and why does that happen? Can Dock to Dish fix it?
Imported, farmed seafood is cheap. Wild, sustainable seafood is not. People are buying low and selling high to make a buck; and while fisheries are extraordinarily regulated, the marketplace isn't. There is no punishment for mislabeling, and no means to correct it. Since we're not a seafood-centric culture, people don't know what's what, where fish are from, and when they're in season, making them easy to dupe. But technology is poised to fix that; DNA testing can test what a fish sample is and where it's from, and SciO handheld spectrometers – soon to be incorporated into smartphones – can analyze the molecular makeup of anything on your plate.
We've created the first ever live tracking system and database for wild fisheries. It is similar to the electronic system used to monitor commercial fisheries, thanks to which the resurgence of wild seafood in U.S. waters is a model for the rest of the world. We have vessel tracking devices on our fishing boats and delivery vans, so the path of each fish is publicly available in real time.
In 2017, Dock to Dish launched the world's first live "end-to-end" tracking system for wild seafood, which provides full chain transparency and next-generation traceability for members.
People are increasingly looking to seafood as a healthier, possibly more sustainable protein option than meat. Can Dock to Dish scale up to accommodate this potentially growing market?
Nope. We can't scale; the supply is finite. That's why the price keeps going up. To avoid becoming "fish for the rich" we are working closely with Greenwave.org to create a network of 3D restorative ocean farms growing kelp and shellfish, which sequester carbon and nitrogen out of the air and soil. Restorative, because sustainable is no longer an option. In fifty years, a plate of seafood will be mostly ocean vegetables with a small amount of finfish as a garnish.
Sean Barrett on the dock in his homeport of Montauk, New York.
In November 2020, messenger RNA catapulted into the public consciousness when the first COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for emergency use. Around the same time, an equally groundbreaking yet relatively unheralded application of mRNA technology was taking place at a London hospital.
Over the past two decades, there's been increasing interest in harnessing mRNA — molecules present in all of our cells that act like digital tape recorders, copying instructions from DNA in the cell nucleus and carrying them to the protein-making structures — to create a whole new class of therapeutics.
Scientists realized that artificial mRNA, designed in the lab, could be used to instruct our cells to produce certain antibodies, turning our bodies into vaccine-making factories, or to recognize and attack tumors. More recently, researchers recognized that mRNA could also be used to make another groundbreaking technology far more accessible to more patients: gene editing. The gene-editing tool CRISPR has generated plenty of hype for its potential to cure inherited diseases. But delivering CRISPR to the body is complicated and costly.
"Most gene editing involves taking cells out of the patient, treating them and then giving them back, which is an extremely expensive process," explains Drew Weissman, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who was involved in developing the mRNA technology behind the COVID-19 vaccines.
But last November, a Massachusetts-based biotech company called Intellia Therapeutics showed it was possible to use mRNA to make the CRISPR system inside the body, eliminating the need to extract cells out of the body and edit them in a lab. Just as mRNA can instruct our cells to produce antibodies against a viral infection, it can also teach them to produce the two molecular components that make up CRISPR — a guide molecule and a cutting protein — to snip out a problem gene.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies."
In Intellia's London-based clinical trial, the company applied this for the first time in a patient with a rare inherited liver disease known as hereditary transthyretin amyloidosis with polyneuropathy. The disease causes a toxic protein to build up in a person's organs and is typically fatal. In a company press release, Intellia's president and CEO John Leonard swiftly declared that its mRNA-based CRISPR therapy could usher in a "new era of potential genome editing cures."
Weissman predicts that turning CRISPR into an affordable therapy will become the next major frontier for mRNA over the coming decade. His lab is currently working on an mRNA-based CRISPR treatment for sickle cell disease. More than 300,000 babies are born with sickle cell every year, mainly in lower income nations.
"There is a FDA-approved cure, but it involves taking the bone marrow out of the person, and then giving it back which is prohibitively expensive," he says. It also requires a patient to have a matched bone marrow done. "We give an intravenous injection of mRNA lipid nanoparticles that target CRISPR to the bone marrow stem cells in the patient, which is easy, and much less expensive."
Meanwhile, the overwhelming success of the COVID-19 vaccines has focused attention on other ways of using mRNA to bolster the immune system against threats ranging from other infectious diseases to cancer.
The practicality of mRNA vaccines – relatively small quantities are required to induce an antibody response – coupled with their adaptable design, mean companies like Moderna are now targeting pathogens like Zika, chikungunya and cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which previously considered commercially unviable for vaccine developers. This is because outbreaks have been relatively sporadic, and these viruses mainly affect people in low-income nations who can't afford to pay premium prices for a vaccine. But mRNA technology means that jabs could be produced on a flexible basis, when required, at relatively low cost.
Other scientists suggest that mRNA could even provide a means of developing a universal influenza vaccine, a goal that's long been the Holy Grail for vaccinologists around the world.
"The mRNA technology allows you to pick out bits of the virus that you want to induce immunity to," says Michael Mulqueen, vice president of business development at eTheRNA, a Belgium-based biotech that's developing mRNA-based vaccines for malaria and HIV, as well as various forms of cancer. "This means you can get the immune system primed to the bits of the virus that don't vary so much between strains. So you could actually have a single vaccine that protects against a whole raft of different variants of the same virus, offering more universal coverage."
Before mRNA became synonymous with vaccines, its biggest potential was for cancer treatments. BioNTech, the German biotech company that collaborated with Pfizer to develop the first authorized COVID-19 vaccine, was initially founded to utilize mRNA for personalized cancer treatments, and the company remains interested in cancers ranging from melanoma to breast cancer.
One of the major hurdles in treating cancer has been the fact that tumors can look very different from one person to the next. It's why conventional approaches, such as chemotherapy or radiation, don't work for every patient. But weaponizing mRNA against cancer primes the immune cells with the tumor's specific genetic sequence, training the patient's body to attack their own unique type of cancer.
"It means you're able to think about personalizing cancer treatments down to specific subgroups of patients," says Mulqueen. "For example, eTheRNA are developing a renal cell carcinoma treatment which will be targeted at around 20% of these patients, who have specific tumor types. We're hoping to take that to human trials next year, but the challenge is trying to identify the right patients for the treatment at an early stage."
Repairing Damaged mRNA
While hopes are high that mRNA could usher in new cancer treatments and make CRISPR more accessible, a growing number of companies are also exploring an alternative to gene editing, known as RNA editing.
In genetic disorders, the mRNA in certain cells is impaired due to a rogue gene defect, and so the body ceases to produce a particular vital protein. Instead of permanently deleting the problem gene with CRISPR, the idea behind RNA editing is to inject small pieces of synthetic mRNA to repair the existing mRNA. Scientists think this approach will allow normal protein production to resume.
Over the past few years, this approach has gathered momentum, as some researchers have recognized that it holds certain key advantages over CRISPR. Companies from Belgium to Japan are now looking at RNA editing to treat all kinds of disorders, from Huntingdon's disease, to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and certain types of cancer.
"With RNA editing, you don't need to make any changes to the DNA," explains Daniel de Boer, CEO of Dutch biotech ProQR, which is looking to treat rare genetic disorders that cause blindness. "Changes to the DNA are permanent, so if something goes wrong, that may not be desirable. With RNA editing, it's a temporary change, so we dose patients with our drugs once or twice a year."
Last month, ProQR reported a landmark case study, in which a patient with a rare form of blindness called Leber congenital amaurosis, which affects the retina at the back of the eye, recovered vision after three months of treatment.
"We have seen that this RNA therapy restores vision in people that were completely blind for a year or so," says de Boer. "They were able to see again, to read again. We think there are a large number of other genetic diseases we could go after with this technology. There are thousands of different mutations that can lead to blindness, and we think this technology can target approximately 25% of them."
Ultimately, there's likely to be a role for both RNA editing and CRISPR, depending on the disease. "I think CRISPR is ideally suited for illnesses where you would like to permanently correct a genetic defect," says Joshua Rosenthal of the Marine Biology Laboratory in Chicago. "Whereas RNA editing could be used to treat things like pain, where you might want to reset a neural circuit temporarily over a shorter period of time."
Much of this research has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has played a major role in bringing mRNA to the forefront of people's minds as a therapeutic.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies," says Mulqueen. "In the future, I would not be surprised if many of the top pharma products are mRNA derived."
"Making Sense of Science" is a monthly podcast that features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This episode is hosted by science and biotech journalist Emily Mullin, summer editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.