Rewriting Life

Biological Teleporter Could Seed Life Through Galaxy

Starting with just a digital file, scientists manufactured the common flu virus.

The first biological teleporter sits in a lab on the lower level of the San Diego building that houses Synthetic Genomics Inc. (SGI), looking something like a super-sized equipment cart.

The device is actually conglomeration of small machines and lab robots, linked to each other to form one big machine. But this one can do something unprecedented: it can use transmitted digital code to print viruses.

In a series of experiments culminating last year, SGI scientists used genetic instructions sent to the device from elsewhere in the building to automatically manufacture the DNA of the common flu virus. They also produced a functional bacteriophage, a virus that infects bacterial cells.  

Although that wasn’t the first time anyone had made a virus from DNA parts, it was the first time it was done automatically, without human hands.

The device, called a “digital-to-biological converter” was unveiled in May. Though still a prototype, instruments like it could one day broadcast biological information from sites of a disease outbreak to vaccine manufacturers, or print out on-demand personalized medicines at patients’ bedsides.

“We have been dreaming, for about a decade, of the ability to fax life forms,” says Juan Enriquez, an executive with Excel Ventures, a venture capital firm that has invested in SGI, who imagines a new Industrial Revolution with the “digital-biological converter” as the cotton gin.

Craig Venter, the renegade biologist who founded Synthetic Genomics in 2005, but no longer takes a day-to-day role in its activities, has said he even thinks it will be possible to transmit life forms between planets.

“He’s talked to Elon Musk” about it, says Dan Gibson, SGI’s vice president for DNA Technology.

Flu viruses

Unlike Venter, known for boasts and big scientific plans, Gibson is understated, although also well-known among biologists for “Gibson Assembly,” a reaction that joins small pieces of lab-made DNA into much larger genes.

SGI’s BioXP 3200, a commercial DNA printer, forms the heart of the digital-to-biological converter. When Gibson, sitting in his office, sends a message to the converter, it begins its work using pre-loaded chemicals. He could just as easily send such a message from anywhere.  

In late May, Gibson’s team disclosed how they’d used the device to create DNA, RNA, proteins, and viruses “in an automated fashion from digitally transmitted DNA sequences without human intervention.”

Work on the converter began around 2013, when SGI and Novartis, the drugmaker, ran a test to see if they could use data from flu outbreaks to very quickly construct seed viruses, from which vaccines are made.

Their chance came in March of that year when Chinese authorities reported H7N9 flu infections and posted the bug’s DNA sequence data online. (The H and the N in flu types refer to hemagglutinin and neuraminidase, proteins on the outer shell of viruses that are recognizable by the human immune system.) “It was Easter Sunday,” Gibson recalls, “when I got an e-mail that H7N9 bird flu was causing quite a scare in China. So we were very quickly able to get the DNA sequence.”

Two days later, without direct access to any specimens, only the digitized sequences, SGI had synthesized the H and N genes on Gibson’s DNA printer. Those DNA strands were shipped to Novartis, which used them to generate virus stocks containing the new genetic information—the kind used in vaccine production. Gibson says that’s when the idea for the digital-to-biological converter became real. “I said ‘Can’t we integrate everything into one box?” he recalls.

Gibson hopes to turn the device into a profitable business. Imagine, he says, that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta unravels the genetic instructions for an antibody to a disease like Ebola threatening to create an epidemic. That code could be streamed digitally to converters at “every hospital around the world” to start making the antidote. “That’s something I believe is going to happen, not in the far future.”

Error problems

Even though the ability to program life and have it appear in different places is startling, just how useful biological teleportation will be remains debatable. Creating a small amount of seed virus stock is important, but it’s only one step in manufacturing enough vaccine for a whole country. The weakened viruses that go into flu shots usually have to be grown by the trillions in chicken eggs—a carefully planned process that takes half a year.

 And the DNA strands made by SGI’s converter still suffer from errors, or random mutations. “This mutation rate would be unacceptably high if you are trying to make … vaccines or pharmaceuticals,” University of Alberta virologist David Evans said in an e-mail. “The FDA would have a cow.”

Even so, Evans says that “although there’s not much novelty in any particular step, putting them all together to make functional DNA come out at the back end is quite impressive … Fix the error problem and you’d have a device everyone would want.” 

Gibson says he is attacking the error rate problem and is also trying to shrink the converter to a manageable size. Right now, it now occupies about the same space as a Fiat 500 car.

Panspermia

SGI has not “printed life” just yet—most biologists do not regard a virus as being alive. But they might get there. In 2016, SGI announced the creation of a “minimal cell,” a bacterium with the smallest-ever genome and which could serve as a kind of blank cassette to accept new genetic instructions. Gibson says that since the “minimal cell is the simplest form of life” it might be logical to try to print one.

Some of SGI’s backers, including Venter, are hinting that the ultimate job for a life printer would be to send life back and forth between planets. In one scenario a sequencing machine could be sent to Mars to obtain the genetic code of any life forms, or near-life forms, found there.

That data could them be transmitted to an earthbound converter, which would reconstruct the alien life, perhaps in a high-security lab. An SGI team spent time with NASA scientists in the barren Mojave desert in 2013 testing aspects of the theory. “We loaded up a research lab bus with all the stuff we needed, isolated some samples and sequenced them,” Gibson says.  

Sending life data into space could be even more interesting. According to one theory of how life emerged on Earth, known as panspermia, it was carried here on a meteor or comet. Sending biological converters into space could be mankind’s way of returning the favor, Enriquez says, seeding life elsewhere.

“I [want] to do something out of this world, to send one of these things to Mars and print fuels, or print part of an atmosphere, or nutrients,” he says.

This invites the question of what life form, or what genetic sequence, would be first to go. Venter famously (and secretly) used his own DNA as the basis for the first human genome sequence of an individual person, published in 2003.

When asked if Venter now intended to reproduce his genome on another planet, both Gibson and Enriquez said the same thing: “No comment.”       

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