In 2007 J. Craig Venter and his team sequenced an entire human genome—Venter’s own—making scientific history. Three years later his team became the first to successfully create “synthetic life,” and won a Popular Mechanics Breakthrough Leadership Award. In his newest book, Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life, out Oct. 17, Venter explains the history of the synthetic field and describes how biological engineering could lead to drastic advances in energy generation, food production, and even evolution. Popular Mechanics sat down with Venter to discuss teleportation, alien life, and the future of the human species.
Q Throughout your book you say that biology is in a “digital age.” What does that mean?
A We have been digitizing DNA sequences in genomes. I call that digitizing biology. When we want to create synthetic life, we start with that digital information—the DNA and the chromosome—and create synthetic life forms from it, which we can then recapitulate. In fact, as the title says, we can send all of this digital information at the speed of light.
Q Why is sending life at the speed of light important?
A One day we will be able to send digital information and then re-create biology at the other end—or, as I say, conduct “biological teleportation.” This could mean downloading medicine such as insulin from the Internet directly into a 3D printer in your home. When the H1N1 flu pandemic struck, it took about nine months to get vaccines to some places. With life at the speed of light, we could send the digital information for the new vaccine around the world in less than a second. Then every place with a digital decoder could download the vaccine. And with the first synthetic cell, we can actually send living bacterial instructions and recapitulate that at the other end. But that’s just now. It’s going to advance very rapidly.
Q Is there anything like this happening now?
A We are currently setting up the first digital biological converter at Novartis’s vaccine-manufacturing plant in North Carolina. As soon as any new strain of flu virus appears, we can send it immediately to them in a digital form. Then in less than 24 hours—more like 10 hours—the robotic device we have there will synthetically make the new vaccine, which could be scaled up and taken into production right there. So a future flu vaccine that you get, particularly if it’s a pandemic vaccine, could result from this process.
Q How will synthetic genetics impact people’s everyday lives?
A Well, it could change how we do manufacturing, which would impact almost every aspect of human life. Synthetic genomics and synthetic organisms are going to allow us to design things for biological systems to make food, drugs, and building materials in whole new ways. One day you could download medicine from the Internet directly into a box on your desktop. We’re already working on new organisms to make healthier and safer food and protein sources. It’s hard for me to envision areas of life that won’t be impacted.
Q What are your biggest challenges to advancing the synthetics field right now?
A First is the technical challenge of getting faster and cheaper DNA synthesis. Multiple teams are working on improving our ability to write the genetic code, but the cost needs to come down about two orders of magnitude to make it part of everyday experimentation in most labs.
Second is just the unknown. The problem is that biology knowledge is very incomplete; we still don’t know what all the genes do in any one cell. That makes it very hard to design organisms and makes it very difficult to model in the computer. Imagine trying to design a car or a jet airplane without understanding what all of the components do! On top of that, most people can’t get government grants to study the unknown, so a huge amount of biology remains completely unstudied. Synthetic genomics—trying to make organisms synthetically—is probably how we’re going to fill that knowledge gap. We have to have that information.
Q What is the most legitimate safety concern over synthetic biology?
A Certainly the biggest concern is the potential for bioterrorism. But using synthetics for bioterrorism is a huge, huge, huge, challenge. Right now there are so many sources of materials for bioterrorism that it’s unlikely that somebody would go to all the difficulty to synthetically make it. For example, anthrax exists on most cattle farms. Any dead cow has a good chance of having anthrax in it, so it’s not like you need to get anthrax from some high security lab. But certainly, in theory, people could make things like smallpox that aren’t readily available.
My main concern is people doing biology in their kitchens. It’s great that so many people are curious about biology, but without proper training these DIY biologists don’t learn the right safety approaches and mechanisms. Someone could inadvertently cause harm to a lot of people. Like any new frontier with powerful technology, people have to think about it carefully. What are its implications? How can we regulate it without over-regulating it?
Q Do you think the government should regulate DIY biologists?
A If they’re doing things that could potentially cause a lot of harm to others, then yes. The government already regulates at-home bombmakers. If you’re making something with the intention of killing a lot of people, the government should be the one we want to look over that area.
Q How will synthetic biology affect evolution?
A With synthetic biology and synthetic genomics, humans are in charge of evolution. We can make biological evolution happen thousands to millions of times faster than it did before. Biological evolution will be able to catch up with social evolution. And that’s exciting, because humanity needs a lot of changes if we’re going to survive. Biology will be one of the key contributing approaches to that survival.
Q Do you think life exists away from Earth?
A It would be a far bigger scientific finding if there wasn’t life than it will be if we discover life everywhere.