Above image credits.
A box sits on your workspace, attached to your internet-connection device du jour and while it doesn’t look like much, be not deceived. For it can generate a vaccine in the midst of a pandemic, fill a prescription for insulin, even transmit DNA data for replication elsewhere. Beam me there, Scotty. Other than the Scotty part (sorry, couldn’t help myself), the Digital Biological Converter is not an episode of Star Trek you seem to have missed, but an actual prototype resting upon the desk of its inventor, the controversial genome scientist Craig Venter. Venter founded the company Celera Genomics, one of the first to sequence the human genome. The genome contains all the information needed to build and maintain an organism – a complete set of its DNA, including all genes.[i] Genomic sequencing is pretty routine these days and Venter has now moved on to manipulating the As, Cs, Gs and Ts of the software of life[ii] into newer, “better” code.[iii]
And by better, he means man made.
He and his team at the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) made international headlines when they produced a Frankenstein’ish synthetic genome, JCVI-syn1.0. Although Venter claimed they had created “life” in the lab, critics took issue, pointing out the process wasn’t entirely from scratch.[iv] Which Venter waves off as nitpicking. For example, if you baked a cake at home, you wouldn’t think twice about calling your culinary creation “from scratch” even though the sugar you used was processed elsewhere, as were the flour and baking powder. “I doubt that anyone would mean formulating his own baking powder by combining sodium, hydrogen, carbon and oxygen to produce sodium bicarbonate, or producing homemade corn starch,” scoffs Venter.[v]
However, about the only scratch that really matters at this point is that by the cat which has now clawed its way out of the bag (or perhaps box owned by a lady named Pandora[vi]) and into Venter’s labs; there, DNA is digitized and the sequence then recreated in other locations. Like in the Mojave Desert at a NASA test site, where the JCVI mobile lab will be sampling the soil, sequencing the DNA and sending the data off at the speed of light. On the receiving end, the info on the proteins, living cells and viruses will be downloaded and replicated. In real life. Which is why the Digital Biological Converter[vii] has been more popularly dubbed the Biological Teleporter.[viii]
Some of the uses Venter foresees for synthetic organisms and biological teleportation include:[ix]
– programming cells to self-assemble at sites of disease within the body and then repair the damage.
– screening the entire genome of an influenza virus or other new superbug, selecting genes with characteristics that would
– make them effective vaccine targets and testing the immune responses. Whenever a new pandemic threatens, this reverse-engineering of a customized vaccine could be accomplished in under a week.
– harnessing Mother Nature’s existing biological “cleanup crew” which already kills half the bacteria on earth every few days. Bacteriophages are specific to certain bacterial strains and kill microbes, targeting but a few select strains or sometimes only one. Venter estimates that every day, 300 new bacterial infection-killing phages could be designed and synthesized.
– creating personalized drugs for colonists living on Mars by sending them the sequence information; the biological teleporter on their end would then enable the drug to be bioprinted. Alternatively, if say NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover were equipped with the ability to sequence DNA, it could analyze a Martian microbe. Once the code was sent back here to us, we could make our very own Martians.
Starting with digitized DNA, we can now create (a version of) synthetic life and recreate forms of it elsewhere via biological teleportation. “I call that digitizing biology,” says Venter. The potential ramifications of this foray into the code of life are obviously far, wide, deep and, as yet, pretty much unexamined. The Digital Biological Converter, to use Venter’s choice of words, recapitulates.[x] Recapitulate means to state the main points of or summarize.[xi] As in the opposite of the details…where the downside of things can generally be found.
[su_spoiler title=”References”]i In humans, any cells containing a nucleus contain a copy of the entire genome, which is more than 3 billion DNA base pairs. via http://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/handbook/hgp/genome
ii Eric J. Topol, MD, professor of genomics at the Scripps Research Institute and author of The Creative Destruction of Medicine (Basic Books) – http://www.forbes.com/sites/matthewherper/2012/02/17/the-power-of-digitizing-human-beings/
vi which was technically a jar – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pandora’s_box
vii The current prototype which is supported by the US Department of Defence’s research agency Darpa and is slightly larger than Venter’s desktop version – measuring eight feet long by six feet high and is being made smaller by the moment. http://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/oct/13/craig-ventner-mars
viii Life replicator is what Chris Anderson, former US Wired EIC and CEO of 3D Robotics prefers, but I – and a whole lot of others – much prefer the one that sounds more Trekkie. – http://www.wired.co.uk/magazine/archive/2013/11/features/j-craig-venter-interview