Synthetic biologist aims to create pig with human lungs
In a provocative cross-species experiment, scientists are striving to rewrite the pig genome so the animal grows lungs that could be transplanted into humans.
“We are re-engineering the pig, changing its genetic code,” said genome pioneer Craig Venter at SynBioBeta 2014, an annual synthetic biology conference in San Francisco. “If we succeed with rewriting the pig genome, we will have replacement organs for those who need them,” he said Friday.
His team at Synthetic Genomics is designing the project, he said, creating on computers the code needed to build the hybrid. By changing as few as five genes, they have created lungs that survived for a year in baboons, he said.
In other major news at the conference, Google confirmed that Stanford University bioengineer Drew Endy has joined its team at the secretive Google X, which created such projects as Google Glass, driverless cars and high-altitude Wi-Fi balloons.
The hiring of Endy, brought to Stanford’s School of Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, suggests that Google seeks to explore the design and construction of made-to-order organisms.
Led by scientists like Venter and Endy, the once-fledgling field of synthetic biology has surged in commercial interest, according to SynBioBeta founder John Cumbers. Synthetic biology companies raised more than $500 million in 2014, and at least 20 startups were launched.
Venter is a La Jolla-based entrepreneur and molecular biologist who gained fame in a historic race with government scientists to decode the human genome.
In the Mojave Desert, he is testing a device that he says can help find extraterrestrial life on Mars by detecting and decoding its DNA — then fax back the code.
The downloaded data could be used to reconstruct the alien organism in bio-secure labs, he said.
“This is a way to bring life back from space,” he said.
He is also building a synthetic flu vaccine that he says could fend off the H7N9 epidemic far faster than existing vaccines, which take months to grow in live cells.
Soon after China posted the genetic code of the H7N9 virus, Venter’s team worked with the pharmaceutical company Novartis to synthesize a protective vaccine.
“We should not have any more flu pandemics,” he said.
To interpret the vast amount of biological data contained in genomes, Venter this summer hired data scientist Franz Och, head of Google Translate and an expert in machine learning and machine translation.
Och is recruiting a team of research scientists and software engineers to work at the new Mountain View offices of Human Longevity, Venter’s genomics and cell therapy-based company focused on extending the human life span.
Such projects are possible, Venter said, for four reasons — falling cost of sequencing, rising power of computers, accelerated “machine learning” and improved understanding of cell therapies.
He has already successfully transplanted the genome of one species of bacteria into another.
And he has programmed a synthetic DNA sequence on computers, built it the lab and implanted it into a bacterial cell — which went on to reproduce.
Society will eventually embrace his controversial innovations, he said.
“You have to be an optimist and believe that these things have a chance to change the world.”