Craig Venter's ‘Digital-to-Biological Converter’ Is Real
Right now, it prints proteins. In the far future, it could print human babies on Mars.
Illustration: Ben Ruby
Craig Venter thinks that sending living organisms to other galaxies on spaceships is "definitely" science fiction. It's much more realistic, he thinks, to print them on-site using digital representations of their genome. He calls this "biological teleportation."
Essentially emailing medicine and organisms back and forth between Earth and other planets is just one of the far-future implications of a device developed by Synthetic Genomics, a company founded by Venter, a superstar geneticist and biotechnologist. The tabletop device is called the Digital-to-Biological Converter, or DBC for short, and without a fancy box it looks like a bunch of complicated mechanical crap laid out on a table. The device accepts digital representations of DNA over the internet and reconstructs them on the spot using the chemical building blocks of life—adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine. You might recognize their initials from the movie Gattaca.
"Just like a printer, it needs cassettes, but instead of colours, it's bottles of chemicals," Venter said over the phone. "It's packaging complex biology that each of our tiny cells do remarkably well at a much, much smaller scale."
Venter, who pioneered genome sequencing in humans, has been at the centre of some of the biggest genetics breakthroughs of our time. He has been teasing the advent of the DBC for years in interviews, and in his 2013 book, Life at the Speed of Light. Along the way, Synthetic Genomics developed a precursor to the DBC called the BioXp, which can construct DNA, but not quite from scratch. After the BioXp was used to quickly synthesize an avian flu vaccine in 2013, Venter says that SpaceX's Elon Musk expressed interest in using a futuristic DBC to print terraforming bacteria on Mars.
"Getting antimicrobials and vaccines to space is going to be important‚ and not at the slow pace of rocketships," said Venter.
Now the DBC has become more than just a futuristic curio, with a peer-reviewed paper published this month in Nature Biotechnology. The paper describes the system in detail, and lays out some of its successes: it can print DNA, RNA (key for decoding DNA instructions), viruses, some kinds of vaccines, and bacteriophages to kill infections. It can also print the synthetic bacterium developed by Venter last year, which, with just 437 genes, is the simplest life ever, according to him.
This paper and the attention that Venter hopes it will garner could be the start of a worldwide revolution in medicine—if enough people buy into the idea, and the DBC itself, that is. Right now, it has some issues. Namely, synthesizing DNA with the device is an incredibly wasteful and expensive process, and it isn't totally error-proof. But Venter is optimistic.
"If you had [a DBC] hooked up to your desktop computer, we could email you insulin or a vaccine, and the device would produce it for you ready-to-go," Venter said. "If you think about all the protein-based drugs that are out there… If you can get those by email instead of getting them from the pharmacy, is conceptually going to be a very different world."
The idea, as Venter describes it, is for every major hospital, clinic, and corporation in the world to own a DBC. If a viral outbreak hits, the vaccine could be sent around the world in a digital file in minutes and produced locally, instead of being stockpiled and shipped out. "We could stop pandemics in their tracks," Venter said.
I phoned Daniel Gibson, a scientist at Synthetic Genomics who invented the DNA assembly process known as Gibson assembly. He was just as fired up as Venter when it came to the near-term medical applications of the DBC. But when it came to Venter's far-future aspirations in space, he was more pragmatic, and said it's best "not to get too distracted."
Venter credits Gibson with much of the nitty-gritty work in developing the DBC, and so Gibson knows exactly how much more work there is to be done before we can print DNA constructs larger than viruses—perhaps even people—in space.
"As DNA constructs are synthesized, about 99.999 percent of the raw materials go to waste—it's an incredibly wasteful and expensive process," Gibson said. "We're trying to solve that, so instead of building two genes with 20 liters of waste, how about building 2,000 genes with just a few millilitres of waste? That will dramatically reduce the cost of DNA synthesis, reduce the waste, improve the process, make it more robust."
Synthesizing DNA is also prone to introducing unwanted mutations, Gibson said. The DBC as described in the Nature paper has this pretty well worked out for the size of DNA constructs it can currently print, but as they move to more complex organisms, the threat of introducing mutations increases.
"All it takes is one DNA base to be incorrect for a protein not to work, or a therapeutic to not do what it's supposed to, or for a cell to not be functional," Gibson cautioned.
Getting the DBC to fulfill some of Venter's further afield ideas is going to take all of the tech that Synthetic Genomics has developed already, as well as techniques that they haven't even thought of yet, Gibson said.
"Look how fast we went from the Wright brothers' plane to supersonic jets, or from very crude DNA synthesis methods to now doing a human genome on average every 12 to 15 minutes, 24 hours a day," said Venter, who sequenced his own genome and released it to the world way back in 2007. "The DBC is more akin to the Wright brothers' first plane rather than to the ultimate biological teleporter."
Even if that never works out, revolutionizing how the world deals with viral outbreaks and ushering in a new era of on-site medicine wouldn't be a bad consolation prize.
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