Major Test of Venter's Digital Biological Converter (DBC) Due by End of Year.
Thanks to +Rick Heil
for directing me to this latest piece in The Guardian http://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/oct/13/craig-ventner-mars#
, which goes into a lot of personal history about Venter at the expense of tantalizingly few details on his proposed DBC. This was first announced last year and it seems development has been progressing swiftly. DBC Summary
* The Digital Biological Converter, as he has decided to call it, is "simply" a DNA printer of sorts. This seems to be heralding a big jump in DNA synthesis
capability (as opposed to DNA sequencing
) and cost reduction in which DNA sequences downloaded from the web, for example, could be fed to this machine and it spits out the sequence in real synthetic DNA. This is very cool because you could use this DNA to program cells directly or to make DNA Origami nanostructures for a range of applications.
* Future generations of the DBC would add capabilities to insert the synthetic DNA into "blank" cells that can be rebooted into life, thus building on his synthetic genomics and minimal organism work. A fully mature version of this technology would allow you to essentially create any conceivable virus, bacteria, yeast, or mammalian cell of interest.
* The device is currently large, filling a large table top but they are working on miniaturising the systems to make it a desktop unit. Initially for large public and private laboratories, the vision embodies affordable units for the home. This "vision" grand as it is has been around for many years - I first remember reading about a hypothesised desktop device that would print novel lifeforms in a New Scientist article well over 10 years ago. A major demonstration of the DBC's capabilities is expected by the end of 2013. Some Thoughts
* I've been fantasising about / imagining similar systems for well over a year now, and not just in a whimsical sense but in a mechanistic, methodical sense of how you might actually build a system and how all the technological sub-assemblies would fit together to make it work. It's exciting to see it already being done and in 2013 no less.
* Picture some of the early mainframe computers and compare it to the smartphone in your pocket and all of the wonderful things that device enables and makes possible. This first device will be like those early mainframes, and just like those who lived when the first mainframes were introduced it is damn near impossible to imagine all of the magical wonders that mature future iterations will enable.
* One of the promises that such technology enables is the ability to create and synthesise your own medicines, drugs, and other therapeutic compounds in your own home and then self-medicate - on the premise that you were appropriately educated and informed of course - and this is certainly something that I see as very desirable to pursue. But as other commentators have pointed out there is a good chance of the State legislating against you, prosecuting you, and seeking to block access to such technology. On the plus side (i) the legislators move so slowly and technology so quickly that we can be reasonably certain that this technology will well and truly be "out there" before they get around to attempting to block it, and (ii) drugs, compounds, and everything else essentially becomes digital in nature and can be treated as we treat music, books, and movies today - it is impossible to stop a motivated person from acquiring any digital good that they desire once it has been released to the public Interwebs. On the negative side, governmental knee-jerk authoritarian reactions like this seem depressingly predictable and likely - the mere thought of draconian government intervention seeking to prevent my basic human freedoms and the pursuit of self-actualisation, self-improvement, and self-determination is something that disgusts me on a rather visceral level. Possible Applications for Mature Technology
* Sensors in Hong Kong airport detect a novel variant of avian flu, sequence it, and upload the sequence to the Internet. Your device downloads the code to make a vaccine, ready for you to take it when you get home later that day.
* You download the torrent for a code to a novel proprietary bacterial genome from a P2P network by simply pulling the associated magnet link from The Pirate Bay. This bacterial genome boots into a probiotic that you drink that enables you to consume milk and other dairy as normal, circumventing your lactose intolerance.
* A simple kit enables you to harvest your own immunological immune cells, which you add to the machine and then splice in several novel genes (programs) that instruct the cell to produce offspring to target a certain cell type. When you inject the cell solution back into your body the cells immediately begin multiplying and destroying the metastatic melanoma you had developed (for example).
These are just three very simple and nearly trivial examples. The applications are almost endless. Of course early systems will only produce the DNA. But when you have mature systems able to easily produce modified cells then your imagination - for vaccines, body modification, tissue engineering, food alteration, organ rejuvenation, genetic enhancement, extreme animal modification, production of industrial chemicals, at-home germ-line engineering, etc, etc
- is the only thing that will limit what is possible.
Bring it. #dnaprinter #syntheticbiology #hope