Synthetic Genomics Inc. (SGI) has a cartful of equipment which they call a biological teleporter. The equipment can print out the entire DNA for a virus or a bacteria in a completely automated process.
SGI’s BioXP 3200, a commercial DNA printer, forms the heart of the digital-to-biological converter. When Gibson, sitting in his office, sends a message to the converter, it begins its work using pre-loaded chemicals. He could just as easily send such a message from anywhere.
In late May, Gibson’s team disclosed how they’d used the device to create DNA, RNA, proteins, and viruses “in an automated fashion from digitally transmitted DNA sequences without human intervention.”
Work on the converter began around 2013, when SGI and Novartis, the drugmaker, ran a test to see if they could use data from flu outbreaks to very quickly construct seed viruses, from which vaccines are made.
Their chance came in March of that year when Chinese authorities reported H7N9 flu infections and posted the bug’s DNA sequence data online. (The H and the N in flu types refer to hemagglutinin and neuraminidase, proteins on the outer shell of viruses that are recognizable by the human immune system.) “It was Easter Sunday,” Gibson recalls, “when I got an e-mail that H7N9 bird flu was causing quite a scare in China. So we were very quickly able to get the DNA sequence.”
Two days later, without direct access to any specimens, only the digitized sequences, SGI had synthesized the H and N genes on Gibson’s DNA printer. Those DNA strands were shipped to Novartis, which used them to generate virus stocks containing the new genetic information—the kind used in vaccine production. Gibson says that’s when the idea for the digital-to-biological converter became real. “I said ‘Can’t we integrate everything into one box?” he recalls.
Gibson hopes to turn the device into a profitable business. Imagine, he says, that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta unravels the genetic instructions for an antibody to a disease like Ebola threatening to create an epidemic. That code could be streamed digitally to converters at “every hospital around the world” to start making the antidote. “That’s something I believe is going to happen, not in the far future.”
The DNA strands made by SGI’s converter still suffer from errors, or random mutations. “This mutation rate would be unacceptably high if you are trying to make … vaccines or pharmaceuticals,” University of Alberta virologist David Evans said in an e-mail.
Gibson says he is attacking the error rate problem and is also trying to shrink the converter to a manageable size. Right now, it now occupies about the same space as a Fiat 500 car.
Panspermia by printing into a synthesized cell
SGI has not “printed life” just yet—most biologists do not regard a virus as being alive. But they might get there. In 2016, SGI announced the creation of a “minimal cell,” a bacterium with the smallest-ever genome and which could serve as a kind of blank cassette to accept new genetic instructions. Gibson says that since the “minimal cell is the simplest form of life” it might be logical to try to print one.
Biological sample return from an interstellar space probe
Some of SGI’s backers, including Venter, are hinting that the ultimate job for a life printer would be to send life back and forth between planets. In one scenario a sequencing machine could be sent to Mars to obtain the genetic code of any life forms, or near-life forms, found there.
Synthesized human genome could be used for specific cloned people transmitting to an interstellar mission
If this process could be used to synthesize an entire human genome then it would be theoretically possible to transmit a sequence to generate a clone to an interstellar mission. However, the cloned cells would still have to mature into an baby and then the baby would have to grow into an adult and have education provided.
That data could them be transmitted to an earthbound converter, which would reconstruct the alien life, perhaps in a high-security lab.