Synthetic Life Offers Practical Solutions to Challenges Such as Pandemics

When Will Pharmacogenetics Revolutionize Drug Therapy?
When Will Pharmacogenetics Revolutionize Drug Therapy?

SAN DIEGO, CA—Sending “life” such as proteins, viruses, and single microbial cells at the speed of light—or “biological teleportation”—is now possible and holds promise to perhaps eliminate future pandemics, said J. Craig Venter, PhD, founder, chairman, and CEO of the J. Craig Venter Institute.

In his Opening Plenary Session lecture, Dr. Venter outlined the rapid progress made over the past few decades, from 1977, when the first DNA virus was decoded, to 1999, when it cost $100 million to decode his genome, to today, where the cost of decoding a human genome is less than $1000.

In his lecture, Dr. Venter, who is also founder and CEO of Synthetic Genomics Inc., La Jolla, CA, addressed such questions as, “How many genes are essential for life? What is the smallest number of genes needed to run the machinery of a cell? Can we design and construct a minimal genome/cell?”, topics that are also covered in his recent book, Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of the Digital Age.

He said the ability to convert “analog” genetic code into “digital” binary code—that is, human DNA reduced to the “zeros” and “ones” of computer language—is what makes synthetic life possible. Data can be sent as an electromagnetic wave, then rebuilt with a digital biological converter. This will allow, for example, “vaccine and drugs to be downloaded directly from the internet” expanding the internet's use “beyond people's imaginations when combined with 3D printing.”

The next step to realizing the complete vision, he outlined, is “when we automate sequencing from biological samples, gene synthesis and assembly, and virus rescue. For example, mobile “sending” units would be able to sequence strain samples from around the world and automatically upload the sequence information to the internet. Scaled-down “receiving” units would create corresponding vaccine seeds for local distribution to manufacturers worldwide.

He left attendees with this thought: an SGI digital biological converter for a “home vaccine module,” which would allow individuals to create their own vaccines. Such a step would no doubt be fraught with regulatory considerations; in fact, discoveries to date have led the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues in December 2009 to launch a report, New Directions: The Ethics of Synthetic Biology and Emerging Technologies.
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