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“What I cannot create, I do not understand”
Synthetic biology – a biological fax machine for life on Mars
At his talk at UCLA in front of a full auditorium on February 25th 2014, Craig Venter, Founder, Chairman, and CEO of the J. Craig Venter Institute, and CEO of Synthetic Genomics (La Jolla, CA) compared sequencing the genome of an organism to translating the four letter nucleic acid code of the DNA molecule into binary code that can be read, stored and communicated by computers.
Since the first sequencing of the human genome in 2001, a lot of technological progress has been made that is informing current developments in science and medicine. Especially the ability to sequence a genome using next generation sequencing (NGS) technology for as low as $1,000 opens up tremendous possibilities for research, industrial and clinical purposes.
The significantly decreased cost will allow sequencing large numbers of individual genomes in order to understand biological variation and phenotypes and in turn fully understand the genome of an organism. This information is crucial for the development of new life forms, an emerging field of biology termed ‘synthetic biology’.
Venter has successfully created life forms such as phages and bacteria in the lab, setting the stage for the exploration of synthetic biology for commercial purposes. In order to be able to distinguish synthetic organisms from naturally occurring ones, their genomes contain ‘watermarks’ encoded in their sequence such as a quote ascribed to famed scientist Richard Feynman, which Venter finds highly appropriate: “What I cannot create, I do not understand”.
Synthetically generated bacteria could for example be designed to produce relevant molecules such as biofuels, which Venter’s firm Synthetic Genomics is exploring in collaboration with Exxon.
Several technical challenges had to be overcome in order to successfully assemble and transplant large genomes from synthetic oligonucleotides. The development of the Gibson cloning method which takes advantage of homologous recombination pathways allowed for a more efficient and automatable assembly process, a service offered by Venter’s SGI-DNA (a subsidiary of Synthetic Genomics). Furthermore, the development of this technology has allowed to create an instrument to synthesize genomes from digital information. The first version of this instrument which Venter compares to “a biological fax machine” should be available in 2014. The possible applications of this digital-biological converter are vast. In his talk, Venter outlined a few of them:
When thinking about the future and further applications of the digital-biological converter, Venter sees the possibility of not only using it for research purposes but potentially even as a machine that could be provided to individuals to synthesize vaccines and biological therapeutics such as insulin on demand at the convenience of their home.
Author: Nadia Sellami, Associate at DeciBio, LLC
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