Biological Teleporter Could Transmit Life to Other Planets

You’ve probably attached images, documents, and a myriad of other files to an email, but what about a life form? That may be possible in the not-too-distant future, according to Synthetic Genomics, a company founded in 2005 by famed geneticist Craig Venter. The company has just unveiled an experimental version of the “digital-to-biological converter.” All this contraption needs is data, and it can build working viruses. This technology could allow scientists to “teleport” life across the globe or across the stars.

The quest to make a machine that prints life started in 2013, when Synthetic Genomics was tasked with synthesizing a sample of a new strain of the flu virus. The virus had popped up in China, and scientists put the genetic code online. New strains of the flu have a different pattern of proteins on their surface called hemagglutinin and neuraminidase. That’s where we get the H and N in int names; in this case, it was H7N9. These proteins are what the body’s immune system “sees,” so they’re also necessary for vaccine production.

Synthetic Genomics used the online H7N9 code to produce the necessary samples in two days without ever seeing the real virus. That’s when Dan Gibson, vice president for DNA Technology, wondered if there was a way to build all that technology into one device. Thus, the dream of a digital-to-biological converter was born.

At the heart of the digital-to-biological converter is Synthetic Genomics’ BioXP 3200, a “DNA printer” that it sells to researchers who want to create synthetic DNA. The paper published in Nature Biotechnology describes how the improved apparatus can produce DNA, RNA, and proteins — everything you need to build a virus. The company created a strain of influenza and a bacteriophage (a virus that targets bacteria). Importantly, all the digital-to-biological converter needs is data, and everything else happens automatically with no human oversight.

It’s debatable whether a virus counts as “life,” but the team at Synthetic Genomics believes its machine will be able to produce unequivocally living organisms soon. One likely candidate for synthesis is the “minimal cell,” an organism designed by Synthetic Genomics with just 437 genes (humans have around 20,000).

The goal is to transmit living organisms from one place to another as data, which could be hugely useful as humans continue exploring Mars and other locations in the solar system. Venter has reportedly talked with SpaceX’s Elon Musk about teleporting terraforming bacteria to Mars.

Currently, the prototype machine needs to be improved before any of that will happen. The error is too high right now, which leads to an unacceptable rate of mutations. Shrinking the size of the device should help with that. As you can see, it’s more a group of machines than a single machine at the moment. Give it a few years, and maybe you’ll be emailing bacteria.

Now read: How DNA Sequencing Works

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