The year is 2030. In a high-security containment lab, scientists gathered around a towering machine, eagerly awaiting the first look at a newly discovered bacterium on Mars.
With a series of beeps, the machine—a digital-to-biological converter, or DBC—signaled that it had successfully received the bacterium’s digitized genomic file. Using a chemical cocktail comprised of the building blocks of DNA, it whirled into action, automatically reconstructing the alien organism’s genes letter-by-letter.
Within a day, scientists had an exact replica of the Martian bacterium.
To Craig Venter, the genetics maverick who created the first synthetic life form in 2016, beaming aliens back to recreate on Earth may sound like science fiction, but is “potentially real.”
Recently, working with Daniel Gibson, vice president of DNA technology at Synthetic Genomics, Venter published a prototype DBC capable of downloading digitized DNA instructions and synthesizing biomolecules from scratch.
Not only did the futuristic machine pump out functional bits of DNA, vaccines, and proteins, it also automatically synthesized viral particles from scratch.
Teleporting alien life to Earth is just one role Venter envisions for the DBC. Working the other way, we may be able to send Earth’s extremophile bacteria to a printer on Mars. If genetically enhanced to pump out oxygen, the bacteria may slowly change the Martian landscape, making it more habitable to humans before we ever set foot on the Red Planet.
More close to home, the DBC could allow instant, on-demand access to life-saving medicine or vaccines during an outbreak or finally enable access to personalized medicine.
“We are excited by the commercial prospects of this revolutionary tool, as we believe the DBC represents a major leap forward in advancing new vaccines and biologics,” says Venter in a press release.
All life is code
At the basis of Venter’s foray into “biological teleportation” is the idea that all life forms—at least on Earth—are essentially DNA software systems. DNA directs and creates the more tangible biological “hardware” made of proteins, cells, and tissues.
Because DNA contains all the necessary information to boot up a life form, by hacking its code and writing our own, we now have the power to create living organisms never before seen on Earth.
Back in 2010, Venter inserted a bacterial genome completely synthesized from chemicals in the lab into a single-cell recipient. The synthetic genome booted up the living bacterium, allowing it to replicate into a large colony of artificial organisms. Six years later, his team ventured even further into the realm of science fiction, creating a new bacteria species with just 437 genes—the absolute known minimum amount of genetic code needed to support life.
These studies and others clearly show we now have a new set of tools that allow scientists to manufacture new living species to join “our planet’s inventory of life.” But why stop there? If life is nothing but code that can be packaged, emailed, downloaded, and copied, why not use the same technology to transmit life?
The DBC is Venter’s attempt to transfer and manufacture life.
Standing at eight feet long and six feet tall, the machine is a Frankenstein beast of mechanical blocks and wires splayed out across a double-deck table. “We’re working on the portability of the machine using new technologies such as microfluidic chips and microarrays,” explained the authors.
Equipped with an ethernet hub, the DBC downloads DNA files from the internet and prints the code using the four chemical bases of DNA—adenosine, guanine, thymine, and cytosine (A, G, T, C).
“It’s packaging complex biology that each of our tiny cells do remarkably well at a much, much smaller scale,” explains Venter.
While automated DNA printers have already hit the market, the DBC takes it one step further. The machine is capable of building proteins from the genetic code (printing biological hardware, so to speak), bringing it one step closer to building living cells from scratch.
At the heart of the system is Archetype, proprietary software that optimally breaks down the input DNA sequence into more manageable short sequences to synthesize in parallel. This massively increases efficiency and reduces sequencing errors that increase with longer DNA strands.
Once assembled, the machine scans the strands for any errors before “pasting” the bits back into complete DNA assembles. From there, a series of robotic arms transfer the DNA from module to module, automatically adding reagents that turn the synthetic genes into functional proteins.
In one proof-of-concept study, the machine pumped out green fluorescent protein, an algae protein that often serves as an experimental canary in the lab. Following the DBC run, the resulting product glowed bright green as expected, and subsequent analysis found that over 70 percent of all synthesized molecules were error-free.
While impressive, the team acknowledges that future models need to do better.
“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,” warns Gibson.
In another experiment, the DBC successfully produced functional flu viral particles, RNA vaccines, and bacteriophages—viruses that infect bacteria that can be used to combat infections or even cancer.
That’s huge. “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,” says Venter. A machine like this in hospitals, homes, and remote areas could revolutionize medicine.
Venter also has his eye on personalized medicine. In the future, if you have an infection you get its genome sequenced in minutes, he says. The doctor could then cross-reference your bug with an online database, download and print the available phage treatments in office and send you on your way.
Venter’s ambition doesn’t stop there. He imagines combining the DBC with technologies from his synthetic organisms to construct a “blank slate” recipient cell capable of producing food, oxygen, and fuel—the perfect workhorse to send around the world or into space.
In theory, the cell would be capable of receiving any synthetic genome designed to produce life-supporting molecules. These cells have to be engineered, says Venter, but stresses that it can be done.
Having a DBC on board means a crew hurtling through space would no longer rely on supply ship rendezvous—and we’ll never have a real life Mark Watney starved and stranded on Mars.
But that’s looking way far ahead.
According to Gibson, before we get too distracted with fanciful thoughts of space, a lot more work still has to be done. For one, the DBC needs to shrink down to a more manageable size. For another, current DNA synthesis technologies are incredibly inefficient and wasteful—“about 99.999 percent of the raw materials go to waste,” he says—a problem further magnified as the team moves on to larger DNA constructs.
These aren’t small challenges, but the DBC shows that biological teleportation for biological materials is feasible. So why not aim high?
“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.”