Craig Venter has built a prototype of a “Digital Biological Converter” (DBC) that would allow what he calls “biological teleportation”: receiving DNA sequences over the Internet to synthesize proteins, viruses and even living cells, The Guardian reports.
It could, for example, fill a prescription for insulin, provide flu vaccine during a pandemic or even produce phage viruses targeted to fight antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
It could help future Martian colonists by giving them access to the vaccines, antibiotics or personalized drugs they needed. And should DNA-based life ever be found there, a digital version could be transmitted back to Earth, where scientists could recreate the extraterrestrial organism using their own life-printing box.
The current prototype, supported by DARPA, is intended to be miniaturized and sold by Synthetic Genomics for use in hospitals, workplaces and homes.
The current prototype can produce only DNA, not proteins or living cells, but even that could be enough to make the device practical. His researchers believe their current prototype is already capable of producing DNA precisely enough that it could be used as a vaccine.
Printing DNA and living cells
Venter also sees a DNA-printing version of his device helping with more regular medical care. It could print out the DNA that encodes the hormone insulin so important to diabetics he says. Adding that DNA to a protein synthesis kit, a tool that is commonplace in research labs around the world, would produce the finished treatment for injection. Venter also has the antibiotics crisis in his sights.
Looking further ahead, Venter intends DBCs to print living cells, using an automated and improved version of the process behind his 2010 breakthrough synthetic cell. Work on that is currently underway, with the focus on creating what he calls the “universal recipient cell,” a kind of biological blank slate able to receive any synthetic genome and come to life.
Venter’s scientists are also working on a machine called the “digitized life sending unit” that would robotically sequence a genome from a sample and generate a digital DNA file that is then sent to a DBC to recreate the original life in a new location.
Venter’s new book, Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life, looks at the future Venter is aiming to create through his scientific endeavors in synthetic biology.