Addition, and key: A Conversation with J. Craig Venter (continued)

CRAIG VENTER: As described in detail in my book, and as I will discuss in my Plenary lecture, the ability to rapidly read the genetic code and transform that genetic code into digital information, coupled now with the ability to write the genetic code, creates all kinds of unique applications that have not been possible before. What we did with NASA out in the Mojave Desert recently was to test what we describe as our “sending unit,” which can sequence DNA in the field and send it to the cloud very quickly for analysis. What that allows, whether the studies are being done on Mars or at some other site, is to do sample testing and sample return without needing a giant rocket that can blast off of Mars to bring back samples.

The same things are true for sampling remotely to test the emergence of new viruses in different parts of the globe. Technology with rapid sequencing and the ability to deliver those sequences rapidly through the Internet is already changing things. We have the real-world example in which we did this with the H7N9 vaccine. The virus was sequenced in China, and at the request of the US government we downloaded that sequence information from the Internet. We synthesized the H7N9 virus for the CDC [Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention] and for Novartis, and Novartis already has a vaccine that has completed Phase I clinical trials. This all happened from taking that digital information and converting it back into DNA information.

This is just the beginning of being able to send biology through the Internet and recreate it at the other end. We are pretty excited about the potential of doing that and coming up with applications that probably can’t even be imagined yet by me or most others. We will be able to transmit biology via the Internet and recreate it, and this will change the delivery of vaccines and medicines. We can already download insulin from the Internet, and we have shown the ability to do so with a flu vaccine. These are only the beginning of a major transformation in what will be possible.

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Jan 24, 2014

A Conversation with J. Craig Venter, Ph.D.

The biotech pioneer and entrepreneur speaks on digitizing life and bioteleportation.

A Conversation with J. Craig Venter, Ph.D.Dr. Venter is founder, chairman, and CEO of the J. Craig Venter Institute, and founder and CEO of Synthetic Genomics, La Jolla, CA.

INDUSTRIAL BIOTECHNOLOGY: Dr. Venter, in the short time that has elapsed since you created the first synthetic genome and new organism, what are the main things this discovery has taught us?

CRAIG VENTER: It has taught and proved that life is a DNA software system and that the information contained within that DNA code contains all the information necessary for life.

IB: Did anything in particular about the process or the findings surprise you?

CRAIG VENTER: The fact that the process works by being able to transplant genomes gave us a lot of clues concerning how evolution occurred, which is actually quite different than what people had thought. The prevailing theories being that just a lot of point mutations collected over billions of years. The fact that we can actually find evidence in the environment for entire genomes being transferred at one time–such as chloroplasts and mitochondria–suggests that evolution is more punctate than a lot of people think, adding perhaps thousands of changes in one event instead of just a selection of minor changes.

IB: What do you see as the main R&D challenges for synthetic biology within the industrial biotechnology community?

CRAIG VENTER: The work to create a new life form was a pilot, proof-of-principle study to show that we could take digital information into a computer, make the chemical version of that information in DNA, boot up that synthetic DNA, and make cells that are driven by the synthetic DNA. In practice, to affect the future of biotechnology and industrial biotechnology we will have to apply those tools in a comprehensive fashion to solve some of the biggest problems out there. At Synthetic Genomics that is what we’re doing. We are working on engineered cells to produce new sources of food and chemicals, and potentially fuel in the long run. We are working on new ways to manufacture vaccines and make antimicrobials. This technology will affect everything in industrial biotechnology; it’s just a matter of how fast that happens. I argue in my book, Life at the Speed of Light, that this could be the start of a new Industrial Revolution.

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