Craig Venter created the world’s first synthetic life. He is building a gadget that could teletransport medicine and vaccines into our homes or to colonists in space.
“We call it a Digital Biological Converter. And we have the prototype,” says Venter from his office and labs at Synthetic Genomics Incorporated (SGI) in La Jolla, California.
Venter has a new book called Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life. It looks at the future Venter is aiming to create through his scientific endeavours in synthetic biology, a kind of turbo-charged version of genetic engineering where scientists design new biological systems – even synthetic life – rather than just tweaking existing organisms by inserting a gene here or there.
Venter, who has a reputation for arrogance, uses his book to describe the nearly 15 years of scientific work that led up to his 2010 breakthrough. It also positions that work at the pinnacle of years of landmark discoveries by the biggest names in biology.
A reader could be forgiven for thinking the book is really aimed at the Nobel prize committee, but Venter claims he just wants more people to understand him. “One of the motivations for the book is to put this in a historical context because of all the confusion out there when we did it,” he says. “I think the work that we have done with the first genome in history, the human genome and with the first synthetic cell is certainly of the world calibre that obviously earns big prizes. Nobel prizes are very special prizes and it would be great to get one. The book is not a campaign to get one.” Venter also wants people to know about what’s coming next – the futuristic home gadget he is building and how it could allow what Venter calls “biological teleportation”.
Venter sees biological teleportation as making a digital copy of an organism’s DNA in one place and sending the file to a device somewhere else that can then recreate the original life-form.
Paul Freemont at Imperial College London admits he can’t think of a scientist with a bigger ego, but believes it is important to have people like Venter, who doesn’t sit in the mainstream scientific establishment.
Last year, George Church of Harvard proposed in his own book, Regenesis, that Neanderthals might be resurrected with the help of an “extremely adventurous female human”. But Venter, who dismisses Church’s idea as “fanciful” in his book, tells me that his bold ideas are different because here in La Jolla they are becoming real. “Mine is not a fantasy look at the future,” says Venter, “The goal isn’t to imagine this stuff. We are the scientists actually doing this.”
Venter’s current project, the Digital Biological Converter or DBC, is his attempt to put genetic tools into one convenient box. The current prototype is supported by the US Department of Defence’s research agency Darpa and is eight feet long and six feet high. “We have teams working to minimise it, make it faster and more reliable,” says Venter, who sees the devices – which Synthetic Genomics will sell – in hospitals, workplaces and homes. A major test of the prototype DBC’s capabilities is planned before the end of the year.
The current prototype can produce only DNA, not proteins or living cells, but even that could be enough to make the device practical. Some vaccines are made using just DNA molecules, points out Venter. “If there is a pandemic, everyone around you is dying and you cannot go outdoors, you can download the vaccine in a couple of seconds from the internet,” he says. That digital file would allow DBCs in homes, hospitals and companies to “just spit out a loaded syringe”. His researchers believe their current prototype is already capable of producing DNA precisely enough that it could be used as a vaccine.
Venter also sees a DNA-printing version of his device helping with more regular medical care. It could print out the DNA that encodes the hormone insulin so important to diabetics he says. Adding that DNA to a protein synthesis kit, a tool that is commonplace in research labs around the world, would produce the finished treatment for injection. Venter also has the antibiotics crisis in his sights. Before penicillin, it was common in Russia and eastern Europe to treat some infections using naturally occurring viruses, known as bacteriophages or phages, that killed the bacteria responsible. The DBC could bring back so-called phage therapy and make it more effective, says Venter. “The future will be that if you have a [bacterial] infection you quickly get its genome sequenced – that will take minutes – and in a very short period of time we could design a phage that would attack just that bacteria very specifically,” he says. Because of the way phages attack their bacteria victims, making just the DNA of the one a person needs is enough, says Venter. “The DNA is the drug that kills the bacteria.”
Looking further ahead, Venter intends DBCs to print living cells, using an automated and improved version of the process behind his 2010 breakthrough synthetic cell. Work on that is currently underway, with the focus on creating what he calls the “universal recipient cell”, a kind of biological blank slate able to receive any synthetic genome and come to life. “We have to engineer it but we think it is do-able,” says Venter. It would mean the possibility of ready access to new cells which currently Venter, in other arms of his work along with others, is currently trying to engineer to produce necessities such as therapeutics, food, fuel and clean water. Their genomes could be made available to be downloaded and printed on DBCs around the world.
In parallel to the development of the DBC, Venter’s scientists are also working on a machine called the “digitised life sending unit”, intended to complete his vision of an end-to-end system for biological teleportation. The sending unit’s job is to sample robotically, sequence a genome from the sample, and generate a digital DNA file that is then sent to a DBC to recreate the original life in a new location.
It’s a project that has attracted the support of Nasa, which doubtless hopes that future robotic Mars missions could pack a digitised-life-sending unit so that any Martian microbes discovered could have digital copies of their genomes sent back to Earth. No prototype of the device is yet ready, but Venter has JCVI scientists working in California’s Mojave desert trying to work out how a robot could autonomously isolate microbes from soil and sequence their DNA.
The first third of the book capture the discoveries and inventions leading up to creating synthetic life, while the middle third describes, sometimes in a bit too much detail for the average reader, the creation itself. The final third probes reactions and repercussions.
Venter touches on the “dual use” threat, but focuses more on happier applications: vaccines that could head off a flu pandemic, alternatives to antibiotics, and new energy sources from unexplored parts of the planet and possibly beyond. If anyone could harness a Martian energy source, it would be he.
Venter gave a talk on the Digital Biological Converter
The Biological-Digital Converter:
Biology at the Speed of Light -talk by Venter Video is at the link.
We can now send biology at the speed of light, and this is one of the implications of our work, which we recorded two years ago making the first synthetic life form. We completely synthesized the genetic code of a cell starting with a digital code in the computer—it’s the ultimate interface between computers and biology. The digital code and the genetic code have a lot in common; something Schrodinger pointed out in 1943, saying it could be something as simple as the Morse code. … Digital code, as you know, is a binary code, and ones and zeroes, and your genetic code is literally four-base code with ACGs and Ts. We can now readily convert in between the two, and we can define life at its most basic level. Things that were a mystery fifty, sixty, seventy years ago, we now understand completely.
This Digital Biological Converter is not a myth, the United States government emails my Institute a new pandemic viral sequence, and we have 12 hours to try and make the new vaccine, get it to Novartis to get ready to scale up. We have a kludge version of that Digital Biological Converter now. But you’re going to see this developing very rapidly where, in the same way the telephone interpreted signals coming through a wire, instead of hearing sound, you’re going to be able to get biology coming out of your computer or your telephone wire. Ten years ago this would seem to be a science fiction story. Now it’s starting to be reality. The question is can we develop these new tools fast enough to ward off what’s going to be a new set of pandemics sooner and later? And it’s not just the populations; it’s how fast we move around. Twenty-four I was having drinks on Nantucket Island, a long way from Torino, and populations move very quickly, and that’s why H1N1 spread so quickly. It was from airplanes moving the virus around.
SOURCES – The Guardian UK, PLOS blog, The Edge